AUSTRALIAN Innovation chairman Wal Merriman has formally apologised to Merino breeders in a research focus group he covertly observed behind a one-way mirror, but not for continuing to watch and listen to them.
Mr Merriman’s short letter sent by Express Post late last week, just days before he is due to appear in a Senate Estimates hearing tomorrow, has come too late, according to some of the breeders.
The AWI chairman and Merryville Merino Stud co-principal has been widely criticised for watching an AWI-funded sheep genetics focus group session behind a one-way mirror in Sydney in June this year.
He was denied a request to participate in the session and allowed to observe by researchers, despite not being invited by his own staff nor the researchers, nor being given permission by the MERINOSELECT breeders who had been promised anonymity and confidentiality.
In his letter, Mr Merriman offers to personally explain “what was a poor decision to consult”, giving a guarantee it would never happen again under his directorship, but apologising only for “the manner in which this day played out”, rather than for continuing to observe without the breeders’ permission.
Similar to a letter from AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough, where he declared that researchers directed Mr Merriman to go behind the one-way mirror rather than sit with the invited breeders, the AWI chairman also appears to accord some responsibility for his actions to the Axiom researchers.
In his letter, Mr Merriman said “it was a mistake to not insist to be in the room with you and I apologise for this.”
“My presence not being fully and openly declared by Axiom Consulting as an AWI observer is not the way I operate,” he said.
Mr Merriman said never before have AWI focus group meetings been held in a room with one-way glass to another room and if the AWI board knew such a room was booked, it would never have allowed it.
“Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) regularly engages with the wool growers we serve about a very broad range of topics whether it is ovine Johne’s disease, wild dogs, flystrike, sheep classing, marketing or genetics.
“I have previously been in the room as I see it as part of my fiduciary duty to woolgrowers to understand the issues affecting the greater wool industry, as was the case last week with the Industry Consultative (ICC).”
Merino focus group participant Andrew Michael said it was good that AWI has realised it should not conduct research in this way, but it was “sad” it had taken four months for Mr Merriman to apologise.
He and fellow focus group breeder Lynley Anderson believed that industry pressure had forced Mr Merriman to apologise.
“The fact that it came Express Post four months after the event and six weeks after the AWI CEO’s letter says it is just a reaction to the bad press they’ve been getting.
“It is just to make them look better,” Ms Anderson said.
Western Australian Merino breeder Craig Dewar also attended the AWI focus group session and said he appreciated getting Mr Merriman’s letter, although it should have been sent sooner.
“It have been sent out sooner after the event, and instead of the grower letter (from Mr McCullough) that was sent.
“If this letter had been sent sooner, this could have been defused much sooner.”
Fellow focus group participant Mark Mortimer said he was “not overjoyed or disappointed” to have received Mr Merriman’s letter.
“I was not looking for one (an apology) – I don’t feel as if I was owed one.”
However, Mr Michael said the ‘man in the mirror’ incident still highlighted the need for a culture change within the AWI board.
He said the current AWI board election was an opportunity for wool growers to decide if they wanted the industry to head in a new direction or stay with the status quo.
Well that was an apology that wasn’t an apology, and promptly expressed posted before he had to face a Senate Estimates hearing. Yes, Michelle we should move on, from an AWI full of self interest.
Well said, Hamish McLaren – move on and enjoy the profits from our extraordinary industry.
Better late than never. He didn’t want to stand behind the one-way mirror. He wanted to be in the meeting himself. He did stand behind the mirror and he shouldn’t have. He has apologised and promised that it will never happen again. Let’s get on with it.