The man at the centre of a controversy gripping ‘s wool industry has admitted he should not have secretly watched an anonymous focus group behind a one-way mirror or told an ABC journalist to “f— off” when he was later asked for a comment on the issue.
Wal Merriman, the scandal-plagued chairman of industry group n Wool Innovation, was grilled in a fiery Senate hearing on Tuesday following the “man in the mirror” controversy and broader troubles allegedly plaguing the taxpayer-funded organisation.
n Wool Innovation chairman Wal Merriman. Photo: Andrew Meares
Earlier this year, leading woolgrowers from across the country were invited to attend a focus group on controversial genetic techniques used in sheep breeding and were subsequently shocked to discover that Mr Merriman and others had been observing proceedings.
Months later, Mr Merriman called ABC agricultural journalist Marty McCarthy a “useless prick” and told him to “f— off” at an industry event, when McCarthy questioned him over the controversy.
“It’s fair to say AWI has had a difficult few months, mostly caused by me,” Mr Merriman said in Canberra on Tuesday.
“Never before have meetings been held in a room with a one-way mirror. This was all very strange to me when I went to observe the process.
“If the AWI knew such a room was booked, it would never have taken place. We don’t do things this way.”
Mr Merriman said the incident was not up to the organisation’s standards and noted the focus group company, Axiom Research, had apologised to participants and “reaffirmed confidentiality”.
The industry group chairman has also apologised to woolgrowers and labelled the episode “not one of our proudest moments”.
Mr Merriman addressed the October incident with the ABC journalist too, saying the language he used “was more fitting for a shearing shed”.
“I’d like to apologise to wool growers and anyone else who was offended by the language I recently used when speaking to a journalist,” he said.
“I confess I am direct in the way I speak, I am from the bush. I occasionally come across in a way that causes offence,” Mr Merriman said.
He acknowledged he had breached his industry group’s code of practice, which requires AWI representatives to treat people with “courtesy and respect”.
But Mr Merriman also targeted McCarthy for criticism on Tuesday, saying he pushed through a crowd of people to question him, after being told Mr Merriman would not address the mirror matter.
McCarthy denied he pushed through people to interview Mr Merriman, and says he had been told he could ask mirror-related questions.
During the hearing, Mr Merriman complained about the presence of photographers from media outlets but was told they were allowed to be there as the proceedings were public.
He was also reprimanded by senators for referring to Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie as “madam” rather than “Senator McKenzie”, and seemingly resisting some lines of questioning.
n Wool Innovation is a not-for-profit company that supports research, development and marketing efforts to help sustain and grow the n wool industry. It is funded by the government and levies paid by woolgrowers.
The industry is currently divided over the practice of mulesing, where farmers cut skin off lambs’ buttocks to prevent flies massing and laying eggs, potentially killing the animal.
While traditional farmers defend the practice as necessary, progressive farmers and high-end fashion retailers are pushing for alternative genetic techniques to be developed with the help of AWI investment.
Western n wool grower David Thompson recently told the ABC that the industry group’s culture was “toxic” and some of the anger at Mr Merriman was due to his staunch defence of mulesing.
“He is punch drunk on his own power and I cannot stand that and I think we will suffer for it,” Mr Thompson said.
Critics say AWI is not supporting enough research and development into alternatives to mulesing, which it has previously committed to phasing out.