“The circus has come to town,” Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O'Sullivan chimed during a Senate Estimates hearing scrutinising Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) expenditure.
This set the argy-bargy tone between NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm who fired the main questions to AWI’s chief executive Stuart McCullough about the industry group’s spending on the delivery of the WoolPoll - a three-yearly vote by woolgrowers on their levy contribution.
The last WoolPoll held in 2015 cost levy payers about $660,000, more than $15 for each of the 43,000 eligible woolgrowers voters.
While more than 20 forums were held across the country in the lead-up to the last WoolPoll, just 50.68 per cent of votes were lodged.
This reportedly marked the lowest number of votes in five WoolPolls.
AWI chairman Wal Merriman said majority of the spending was required to adhere to the statutory funding regulations.
“Stuart (McCullough) and I and a couple of others get in a car and we might drive 500 mile to meet 20 people, it is ridiculous,” Mr Merriman said.
He said in the past 12 months AWI had met with the Woolgrowers Industry Consultative Committee (ICC) to discuss extending the period between votes to four years.
Senator Leyonhjelm questioned why extending the period between WoolPolls was a higher priority for AWI than driving down costs.
“If you went to woolgrowers and said this is a very expensive exercise therefore we should extend the period between WoolPolls, I’d question if that would be an appropriate approach if you haven’t done everything you can to lower the cost of the WoolPoll,” Senator Leyonhjelm said.
“If you are satisfied two-thirds of those costs are necessary in order to achieve levy payer democracy, do you think you’d get a sympathetic ear form the government in terms of legislating to reduce those obligations?
“How much are you locked into in terms of those costs and how much is because you think you need to do these things - because of historical or traditional reasons.”
In response to Senator Leyonhjelm’s “worst case” suggestion of a phone call and voting slip in the mail, Mr Merriman said “if that is all you wish, that’s terrific, we’d be happy”.
While online voting has been an option for the past two polls, Mr McCullough said AWI were pursuing greater digital communication to decrease costs.
“Two-thirds of those costs are regulatory requirements and one-third is things we choose do,” Mr McCullough said.
“We see it as a big figure but we like the fact there is a WoolPoll every three years (and) we like the fact there is a zero option every three years.
“Is it a reasonable figure? … it is a hell of an expense.”
He said costs, which had been reduced from over $1 million in past years, were a factor in wanting to hold the levy vote every four years.
“We would naturally prefer a four year cycle - costs does play into that thinking,” he said.
“We haven’t pushed this on the (Agriculture) Department vigorously or the minster for that matter.”