NINETY minutes has been allocated for Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) to face a vigorous and painstaking interrogation at Senate estimates hearings in Canberra this week, spearheading a lengthy agenda of farm levy-payer groups.
It promises to be one of the most combative Senate Committee hearings in recent times matching the appearance of ABC Four Corners host Sarah Ferguson over her role in the Indonesian live cattle exports ban and accusations rejected but pointed at Animals Australia over alleged payments to Indonesian abattoir workers to abuse cattle in the video footage used to ignite the public outrage which propelled the market suspension and Coles and Woolworths senior executives who copped a hammering over selling milk for $1 per litre and its negative impacts on dairy farmers, in 2011.
Sitting alongside Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Secretary Daryl Quinlivan to face a penetrating examination from federal politicians into recent events, in search of transparency, will be embattled AWI Chair Wal Merriman and CEO Stuart McCullough.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee supplementary budget estimates hearing is set to start at 10.45am on Tuesday, running to 12.15pm – but can be extended.
It has been foreshadowed as a potential breaking point for Mr Merriman amid public and private demands for his resignation amid criticism of AWI’s governance standards, following a series of controversial incidents exposed in recent weeks.
That includes swearing at an ABC journalist in Adelaide last week and revelations about the now infamous one-way-mirror scandal where he observed a wool levy-payer consultation session on genetics earlier this year without the knowledge of participants, despite his presence at the meeting being requested, but rejected.
Calls for an apology from the Chair from different critics including wool representative bodies have so far proven futile.
AWI has sought to explain the one-way-mirror incident to its grower levy-payers via a letter from Mr McCullough, while stressing the long-serving Chair acted within his fiduciary responsibilities, as a member of the relevant AWI sub-committee.
But Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan - a former police officer and experienced criminal and forensic interrogator - has expressed interest in examining finer details of the “bizarre” incident, during AWI’s estimates appearance.
“I’ll be seeing that we have a very transparent effort to get in behind what these problems are,” Senator O’Sullivan – who is also Committee Co-chair - said last month
“I must admit I found it a little bit bizarre that someone would conceal themselves to watch a process where they’d been rejected from the process earlier in time.”
Senator O’Sullivan said he didn’t believe the one-way mirror incident passed the common ‘pub test’.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s law enforcement or anywhere, I think where there are stakeholders involved, transparency is the first casualty when you have events like this,” he said.
“Government has an interest in these things because we provide funding support to these industries through the donor companies so it’s our job to scrutinise activities.”
Co-chair and experienced WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle said he looked forward to sitting in on the Committee’s AWI examination at next week’s estimates hearings to witness the interaction between Mr Merriman and Senator O’Sullivan.
“I think we should all get out the popcorn, fasten our seatbelts and sit back and enjoy the show,” he said.
Assistant Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Anne Ruston will also appear at the hearing, standing in as the government’s representative for the senior minister and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Senator Ruston said AWI had been allocated 90 minutes compared to smaller time slots for other groups like 10 minutes for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and 15 minutes for LiveCorp.
But she said recent issues at AWI had generated a “huge amount of interest” among federal members of parliament, leading into the estimates hearing where the schedule and priority of appearances for the different farm agencies are subject to debate among committee members.
However, one hour and 50 minutes has also been set aside for the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, which has been a focal point of political attack on the government due to it being relocated from Canberra to Mr Joyce’s New England electorate, despite the farm industry’s resistance and criticism by other groups.
A member of parliament - who asked not to be named - said questions about whether AWI had satisfactory governance arrangements in place, to meet public accountability requirements for taxpayer spending, needed to be asked at the hearing.
“Wal Merriman isn’t someone who is known to back down from a fight so I wouldn’t expect he’ll cower off into a corner and say nothing but he’s also had plenty of warnings that this examination is coming his way, so I’m sure his defence will be well-prepared.”
According to a recent ABARES report, AWI received $12.48 million in federal government funding in 2014-15 and $19.36m in levy-payer contributions.
Overall in that time-period, the 15 rural Research and Development Corporations received $252.72m in government matching contributions, $296.02m in levy contributions and $43.81m in voluntary industry contributions.
Senate estimates is used by federal politicians to examine how various groups like AWI and the Grains Research and Development Corporation - which has an annual budget of about $200m in government and levy-payer funds but is not an Industry Owned Corporation like AWI - are accountable for their public spending activities.
AWI has also tried to justify some of the recent controversies, including accusations of “overly generous” severance payments to staff, by pointing to the wool industry going from one worth $1.9 billion in 2010 to one valued at $3.3b today, during the tenure of Mr Merriman and Mr McCullough.
But other RDCs are understood to be growing increasingly anxious that escalating media reporting of recent events at AWI is having a negative compound impact on Mr Joyce’s attitude towards the RDCs; despite broad support within the Coalition government for the industry and government co-funding RD&E model.
National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simson added her thoughts to the escalating controversy, warning farmers had an expectation of professionalism and high standards of behaviour from those who represented them on levy-paying bodies.
“Farmers make significant investments, via levies, to facilitate the valuable research and development activities carried out RCDs,” she said.
“They have every right to expect that the people responsible for overseeing the management and application of this investment act, at all times, in a professional and respectful, manner.”
However, the Council of RDCs said it wouldn’t be making any general statement on AWI’s issues which were for the wool industry to determine with its levy-paying growers, representative groups and other organisations.
The story AWI Chair Wal Merriman in firing line of political scrutiny first appeared on Farm Online.