FOR aspiring Australian Wool Innovation director Paul Cocking the key to the future of the research, development and marketing company, and to rebuilding the nation’s Merino flock, is trust – the trust of wool growers and of consumers.
The New South Wales wool grower and 2019 AWI director election candidate wants director and cultural change at the industry’s grower levy and taxpayer-funded body.
Mr Cocking is one of eight candidates standing in the 2019 election. The other candidates include Victorian wool grower Noel Henderson, former South Australian researcher Janelle Hocking-Edwards, NSW farm consultant Phil Holmes, NSW sheep breeder and grower George Falkiner. Current directors Wal Merriman and David Webster are also re-standing on a ticket with NSW veterinarian Michelle Humphries.
Mr Cocking said he understood growers were tired of reading about AWI politics and were focused on surviving the drought and generating cash flow.
“But at the same time I urge them to be engaged with this election, because without a change it could dramatic ramifications for the funding of AWI and the funding of AWI in the future.”
Mr Cocking is concerned that if candidates other than the ‘ticket’ of Wal Merriman, David Webster and Michelle Humphries were elected, AWI would not win back the confidence and trust of wool growers and all supply chain stakeholders, and be able to rebuild market confidence in Australian wool and rebuild the flock.
“If we don’t win back the trust of the wool growers and the industry in handling big issues like social licence and animal welfare, I really fear that AWI will not be able to enthuse young people and rebuild the flock.”
“I wonder are we going to get enough young people back into the industry to sustain it and rebuild numbers,” he said.
“It’s crucial to take control of this or the flock is going to keep declining.”
Mr Cocking said some candidates advocating a ‘pushback’ to consumers on mulesing as an election issue, was sending the wrong message to consumers.
“We should not be sending a message that can have a negative influence on our industry.”
Merriman ticket’s mulesing stance is wrong message
In a recent letter to shareholders, Mr Merriman, Mr Webster and Dr Humphries voiced their support for continued mulesing and defended growers’ ability to care for their sheep with “the best current practices”, but without specifically supporting mandatory pain relief or renewed breeder efforts to breed plain-bodied sheep to avoid mulesing using existing AWI-funded tools such as breech wrinkle and visual sheep scoring.
Despite escalating market signals that wool from mulesed wool is selling, and will increasingly sell at a discount to ‘non-mulesed’ wool, and with more customers turning exclusively to non-mulesed wool use, and to other countries for supplies, the Merriman ticket candidates gave no consideration to the benefits of increasing non-mulesed wool production to Australian growers.
Mr Cocking is campaigning on supporting mulesing with pain relief, while commending growers who are not mulesing. But he said the Merriman ticket message sounded like support for mulesing without pain relief and regardless of consumer sentiment.
“And making that a top priority of the election campaign I don’t think it the right message to send to the end consumer.
“It’s really a matter of when, not if, we will have to stop mulesing one day,” he said.
“It should be the top priority of the board to look for alternatives and use the right messaging around this that farmers do care for the welfare of their animals.
“I am amazed and pretty much disgusted that there is pushback on 100pc pain relief.”
Mr Cocking if new directors were not elected he is concerned about the future of AWI, because of the decrease in wool levy from reduced wool volumes due to the drought and lower prices.
“I also believe the growers will continue to vote the levy down if there is not real change in the company and if the AWI board doesn’t win the trust of growers that they are facing the challenges, and it also may give the government an excuse to increase interference in the company.”
He said AWI’s recent governance issues have already been widely discussed by other RDC’s and were the subject of the 2018 EY AWI performance and governance review.
“AWI does a good job and has good staff and I think as an industry we want to keep AWI, but this will election could put it in danger.
“A lot of people have missed the key point that if there were not changes, there will be a massive hit to funding from volumes and prices, and from growers voting the levy down, and the cost to the government,” he said.
If we don’t get change that is a real possibility and that leads into a possible reduction in wool sheep numbers and matings once it rains.
“If we don’t fix this now, we won’t have a company to deal with these issues.”
Mr Cocking believes AWI, Meat & Livestock Australia and the Grains Research and Development Corporation should be working together better, especially if there are going to be less funds available.
He can’t believe almost a million of dollars and a lot of board time had been spent on the EY review and defending the 10-year tenure recommendation.
“It should be a no-brainer; it should 8-10 years max then succession planning would not be an issue.”
Mr Cocking would like to see growers have a vote on the current 60 percent marketing 40pc research and development expenditure split.
“It should be a question in the next WoolPoll.”
Mr Cocking believes AWI needs the board experience of Mr Henderson and former AWI directors such as himself and Mr Falkiner.
“Having board and industry experience, along with a good understanding of AWI will be a must.”
He is urging growers to give their proxies to either himself, Mr Falkiner or Mr Henderson, rather than to the AWI chair.
Click here to read Mr Cocking’s letter to AWI shareholders.