AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough, AWI chairman Wal Merriman and Department of Agriculture secretary Daryl Quinlivan, during Senate Estimates in Canberra.

Senator demands AWI election overhaul

AWI chairman Wal Merriman can control up to half the votes cast at board elections, as Senates Estimates reveal the chairman’s powerful grip on woolgrower voting.

Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) chairman, Wal Merriman, holds a powerful grip on woolgrower voting outcomes, potentially controlling half the votes cast for AWI board candidates.

The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee hearing on Tuesday has also disclosed Mr Merriman’s ongoing access to voting trend data during the three week AWI election process.

Mr Merriman confirmed he controlled “about 45,000” votes of the 90,000 shareholder votes cast at board elections.

“I hold a lot of proxies,” Mr Merriman said.

“It might not be that many but the point is, they want me to vote for them.

“The shareholders give it to me as they want to get a good, stable board.”

He declined to disclose the number of proxy votes received and how they were cast at previous elections, claiming “confidential knowledge”, but Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan said “this is at the heart of the transparency of the operation”.

“On your own figures, you and you alone will determine who wins the free election of the board when 50 per cent of ballots cast are cast by you via proxy,” Senator O’Sullivan said.

“I’ve got to tell you, in the political world, if you have 20,000 out of 90,000, you are head and shoulders (above)… it is all over.

“You need to decline them and your board needs to (amend) your charter and code of conduct so that board members won’t ever in the future receive proxies to apply in a free election for a board member.”

It was revealed AWI company secretary Jim Story was given updated progressive reports of the voting patterns by the returning officer company, Link Market Services, and shared this information with Mr Merriman.

Mr Story clarified the proxy figures and said in the 2013 board election, there were 2402 proxies processed, covering 202,211 votes, and in 2015, 1064 proxies cast, representing 81,285 votes.

He believed the majority of the proxy votes were directed, although could not detail the voting breakdown.

“To all intent and purposes the votes have been made, they happen to be the proxy on the day,” Mr Story said.

The election process was further probed by Senator O’Sullivan who revealed allegations Mr Merriman directly appointed members to the Election Nominations Committee (ENC), which oversees the skills and eligibility of nominees for endorsement, without the board’s input in nominating candidates.

“The assertions are, you as chairman, have a practice of simply coming to the board and indicating you want Fred, Betty and John, and that there is no peripheral, pre-existing process. The assertion is - you don’t invite the board to tender to you names that might suitably fill these positions - you simply deliver in the form of fait accompli,” Senator O’Sullivan said.

The ENC this year included former AWI chairman, Brian van Rooyen; stud breeder Rob Ashby, and former NSW Primary Industries Minister, Katrina Hodgkinson, plus board members, Meredith Sheil and Mr Merriman. 

Senator O’Sullivan called for the tabling of minutes from the board meeting to “neutralise and truncate this”, and show whether a nomination process had been executed.

AWI board director David Webster said there were board discussions regarding vetting the independence of ENC board candidates.​ 

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