The Kangaroo Court and The Reign of Error
All together now
Tie me kangaroo down, sport
Tie me kangaroo down
Tie me kangaroo down, sport
Tie me kangaroo down
Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred
Tan me hide when I’m dead
So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde
And that’s it hanging on the shed
– Rolf Harris
A kangaroo court is a judicial tribunal or assembly that blatantly disregards recognized standards of law or justice, and often carries little or no official standing in the territory within which it resides. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted“.
A kangaroo court is often held by a group or a community to give the appearance of a fair and just trial, even though the verdict has in reality already been decided before the trial has begun. Such courts typically take place in rural areas where legitimate law enforcement may be limited. The term may also apply to a court held by a legitimate judicial authority who intentionally disregards the court’s legal or ethical obligations. – Wikipedia
The problem with “rock bottom” moments in life is that the inevitable consolation offered is “it can’t get worse than this.” The problem with this is that it almost always does get worse. So, after ten horror years in the Australian wine industry, I won’t say, “it can’t get worse than this” here. It just might.
Last week, the Winemakers Federation of Australia released the much-awaited “Bleby Report” about the documents that WFA redacted and represented as complete to the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association (MV). (Anyone who is unfamiliar with this matter can refer to the post on this site named WoofaGate and Entwined leadership ).
There are two notable things about this – that WFA accepted Hon. Bleby’s report as complete and the report’s stunning deficiencies.
After 16 pages of breathless reportage about bureaucratic derring-do, the retired Hon. David Bleby concluded this about WFA’s conduct:
“the fact that the information conveyed purported to be in the form of a copy of the letter, when it was not, thereby constituting misleading and deceptive conduct.” (italics mine)
To think it could have just ended here with an apology from WFA and a sacking or polite resignation or two was one of those false rock bottom moments. We all wish this would end.
Tony D’Aloisio, President of the WFA, chose to give a miss to the opportunity for WFA to assert its integrity in this matter and instead released an occasionally bizarre and combative statement meant to be the final word on the matter (in his opinion anyhow).
One of his surreal conclusions from this statement was:
“Importantly there was no finding by Mr Bleby of unethical conduct or dishonesty or fraud on the part of any of those involved. Nor was there any finding that or that there were systemic issues within WFA or WINEC that needed to be addressed.”
Understood in two parts, this conclusion gets even weirder. “Misleading and deceptive conduct” is by definition “unethical” and “dishonest.” (Seriously, why would WFA be implementing honesty counselling unless the problem being remedied was “dishonesty”?) Orwell would have loved this guy.
The second part is that there was no finding of “systemic issues within WFA or WINEC that need to be addressed.” Of course there wasn’t. The judge wasn’t asked to investigate this. Hon. Bleby himself says “a belief that WINEC was only acting in the interests of larger wineries or other or a combination of factors is not for me to judge.” (italics mine) Mr. D’Aloisio must think that we are unable to read.
Taken together, Mr. D’Aloisio’s statement is, at best, nonsense to deflect blame away from WFA for an offense committed by at least one WFA employee and committee Chair – both established and admitted to – prior to Hon. Bleby being hired.
This is the beauty of hiring your own judge. You can conclude whatever you want regardless of what they conclude.
To avoid distraction as to blame in this matter, WFA paid for, accepted and published Hon. Bleby’s report. In doing so, this report became WFA’s report. They now wholly own it, its deficiencies and its potential liabilities.
The terms of reference that Mr. D’Aloisio and WFA publicly established for the Hon. David Bleby in investigating this matter were:
“In relation to the covering letter to the Aus-Qual report prepared for WINEC: Examine the events relating to the provision of the covering letter and differences between the original and copy provided; Speak to those involved and as he deems necessary to others; and make all such other enquiries as he sees fit.”
In all things legal, especially between two formidable lawyers such as D’Aloisio and Bleby, words matter. This remit does not provide Hon. Bleby discretion with respect to whom he speaks to – he is required to “speak to those involved.” He may then speak to others “as he sees fit.”
I am not a lawyer but English is my mother tongue. Whether witness, suspect or Good Samaritan, the person discovering and reporting a potential crime or offense, civil or criminal, is, by definition, “involved.”
In his 18-page report, Hon. Bleby makes reference to Dr. Irina Santiago-Brown, by my count, at least 24 times. (For the sake of absolute clarity for the reader, Dr. Santiago-Brown is married to your correspondent. She has reviewed this post and commented on it for purposes of accuracy.) Dr. Santiago-Brown both discovered and reported the misleading conduct at the source of this matter.
Dr. Santiago-Brown was not contacted at any point in Hon. Bleby’s investigation of this matter while the rest of those “involved” were contacted and / or interviewed, some numerous times.
The omission of Dr. Santiago-Brown’s testimony creates such awkward gaps in the evidence presented that at one point Hon. Bleby is forced to confess that “A copy of the letter was produced to me at my request. While it may have raised some concerns to some growers, its relevance to the matter in hand was unclear to me.” This confession of lack of understanding by Hon. Bleby is the hinge on which this entire report swings.
The letter referred to is a letter from Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) advising grape growers that they needed to enrol in Entwine by 30 September 2014. Participation in MV’s Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) system had been accepted by TWE as proof of Entwine compliance in prior years. In 2014, this was no longer to be accepted by TWE despite the fact that WINEC Chair (and TWE employee) Ms. Gioia Small was responsible for administering an ongoing third-party assessment of equivalence between the two programs whose results were received by both WFA and her on 5 August 2014, nearly eight weeks prior to this deadline.
Ms. Small’s own LinkedIn bio describes her role thus: ‘Regional Manager Sustainability Treasury Wine Estates 2002 – Present (12 years)Adelaide, Australia Responsible for the strategic direction and overall management of environment for wineries, vineyards and packaging centres in Australia. Leadership and management of a national technical team servicing vineyards, wineries and Grower Relations teams. Encouraging innovation and adoption in a commercial environment.” (italics mine)
In Hon. Bleby’s report, Ms. Small claimed she was unaware of this letter from TWE.
This entire kerfuffle was (originally) about this timing – Mr. Griffante and Ms. Small appeared to be dragging the chain and proposing a possible equivalence announcement perhaps as late as November 2014 using the rationale that a lengthy process of WINEC evaluation and recommendation and then WFA Board evaluation and acceptance was still required despite both parties understanding that Aus-Qual was the relevant authority to make this assessment.
According to Dr. Santiago-Brown, Ms. Small explained that this lengthy (and previously un-articulated) process was required as WINEC was not up to speed on the Aus-Qual process to establish equivalency between the programs and the importance of “due process.” It was in response to Ms. Small and Mr. Griffante’s inability to even recall the names of the WINEC members that Dr. Santiago-Brown used her phone to identify the committee members on the WFA web page as referenced by Hon. Bleby in his report.
(As a reference point with respect to timelines, expectations, chain dragging and entwined interests that apparently escaped Hon. Bleby’s reportage and timeline, Mr. Griffante forwarded a letter on 31 July 2012 on behalf of TWE Grower Relations Manager Hamish Franks in which Mr. Franks states: “TWE has concluded that there is a relatively short (- 6 months) within which the MV program and its 3rd party audit system is likely to receive sign off by WFA.” I am curious what Mr. Franks’ reporting structure looks like at TWE and if Mr. Griffante was forwarding similar emails for other winery members using Entwine in McLaren Vale.)
Anyhow, MV levy payers had contacted MV in 2014 indicating that they wished to remain in SAW but needed assurance that it was equivalent to Entwine prior to the 30 September 2014 cut-off date set by WFA or risk being unable to sell their fruit to TWE in the coming season. For many growers, to ignore this warning from TWE was to potentially face financial ruin. Hence, MV’s request to release the results of the Aus-Qual report on or before 30 September was to protect its levy payers from serious harm or needless duplication of effort resulting from a deadline established by TWE and WFA / Entwine. This entire matter can not be understood without understanding the relevance of this deadline and how it came to be.
That WFA’s CEO Paul Evans, WFA’s Manager Damien Griffante and / or WINEC Chair Gioia Small did not communicate the context of this salient fact to the Hon. Bleby in at least seven reported separate conversations (plus email) is now clear.
That this is the standard of communication offered to the Hon. Bleby by WFA in an investigation entered into and paid for by WFA members is emblematic of this current mob. They must have adopted the “shortest possible truthful answer” and “CYA” strategy of defense attorneys everywhere.
Had Hon. Bleby interviewed Dr. Santiago-Brown, he would have had no doubt about the significance, relevance, timing or urgency of the TWE letter or the ensuing events. Instead, he chose to blithely report that the letter’s relevance was “unclear” to him.
Had Hon. Bleby understood the context of just this one letter, his entire report would have been different. For the first 16 pages, he seems to be trying to turn simple tale of apparently inept bureaucrats overwhelmed with the prospect of the embarrassment that they might be revealed as inept bureaucrats into a potboiler of conflict and intrigue.
Hon. Bleby’s report attempts to build up a dramatic parallel story line to the factual one whose relevance was unclear to him. In this narrative, WFA is riven with “tensions” in an environment of “suspicion and distrust” about what could happen if WFA showed MV the auditor’s covering letter that expressed exactly what MV had been telling WFA for three years – that Entwine may not yield continuous improvement because of its structure.
In the Analysis and Commentary pages of his report, Hon. Bleby goes as far as to breathlessly report a meeting held on 5 September thus: “hostile, tense and unpleasant, as indicated by the opening apparently irrelevant salvo concerning the alleged TWE letter and the failure to provide a copy of whatever other documents had accompanied the comparison table.” This is the same TWE letter that Hon. Bleby has already reported that he has seen and does not understand the relevance of is now “alleged” and discussion of it is “apparently irrelevant?” Really?
Moreover, Hon. Bleby refers to a “history of adverse media” and that “there had been mainstream and industry media reporting which was critical of Entwine” and a belief that these “public criticisms were inspired by MV.” These statements are reported as credible and made without reference to any documentation supporting the existence of these beliefs let alone MV’s responsibility for it. This is fantastical stuff for any sceptical reader to accept without any supporting documentation, references, footnotes, etc.
Excepting one article written by wine author and columnist for The Australian Max Allen in 2009 (get over it!), I cannot recall any negative media reports about Entwine. And, I cannot ever recall a public comment by anyone from MV, which disparaged Entwine or WFA.
Again, the judge’s narrative angle would have been badly undercut by Dr. Santiago’s testimony. In short, the build up of tensions reported by Hon. Bleby would be seen for something quite different; a smokescreen created after the fact by those already found to have misled to justify their calculated deception, attempted cover-up and chain dragging designed to benefit WFA at MV’s expense. But, not having met Dr. Santiago-Brown, the judge sails along to his thrilling conclusions without investigating the matter wholly or enquiring as to possible other motivations for deception.
What is clear from Hon. Bleby’s report is that Ms. Small had decided as early as 5 August 2014 that the “to be redacted” paragraph was not for public consumption and that Mr. Griffante was aware of her thoughts. Another point made is that Mr. Griffante redacted a second document (the ‘questions’ document sent to Aus-Qual) before transmitting it to MV as well.
The previously admitted misleading conduct appears not to have been a ‘heat of the moment’ error of judgment in an atmosphere of “tension” but the result of a premeditated effort where an additional document was also redacted and transmitted to MV to cover up the initial redaction. Mr. D’Aloisio failed to mention this as well in his denial of wrongdoing.
Setting aside the repeated discourtesy Hon. Bleby shows Dr. Santiago-Brown by not once addressing her by her formal title (he prefers Ms. Santiago-Brown, Irina Santiago-Brown and “Irina” while always addressing all other participants by their proper names), he also incorrectly describes her role at the outset as “Member of MV and actively involved in the formulation of MV Program.” Oddly, Hon. Bleby never neglects to refer to himself by his own honorific title.
By contrast, Hon. Bleby describes the admitted source of redaction, Ms. Small, as “Member of WINEC since 2007 and Chair of WINEC since late 2013; Regional Manager Sustainability, Treasury Wine Estates (“TWE”), having worked in environmental sustainability for TWE and one of its predecessors (Southcorp) since 2002.”
Hon. Bleby neglects to mention that Dr. Santiago-Brown has been employed by MV since 2011 as the Program Manager managing the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) system (Hon. Bleby gets that name wrong as well) who has both personally compiled the SAW program and is the only person in Australia to hold a PhD in Sustainability in Viticulture.
That her PhD thesis – a survey of all the assessment systems for sustainability in viticulture in the “New World” wine producing countries – makes her perhaps the most qualified person anywhere on this subject is conveniently not reported by the judge. Moreover, SAW’s six different chapters have been successfully peer-reviewed by relevant world experts. No other remotely similar system in Australia, including Entwine, can claim this level of rigor or academic qualification.
Another gaping omission is the redacted letter from Aus-Qual. Considering that this letter, and its subsequent redaction, is the subject of the investigation, how strange is it to not include this letter, including its redacted passage, in the report?
Despite his best efforts to polish this pile and roll it in glitter, Hon Bleby still finds that the acts already admitted to being wrong as still being wrong. Unfortunately, in doing so he seems to accept and propagate the “emotionally charged” smokescreen purported by Mr. Griffante, Ms. Small and Mr. Evans without fully investigating it by interviewing Dr. Santiago-Brown. This smokescreen version is the reality distortion field needed by Mr. D’Aloisio to come to his own shape shifting conclusions and pronouncements.
Despite all of this (there’s more), the real question in this matter comes down to the terms of reference established by WFA: Was Dr. Santiago-Brown “involved” in this matter or not?
If Dr. Santiago-Brown was “involved”, why wasn’t she “spoken to” as everyone else was and as Hon. Bleby’s terms of reference require? Why wasn’t she given the opportunity to speak to the events everyone else had the opportunity to speak to? Why wasn’t she given the opportunity to explain the substance and context of meetings and emails as reported by Hon. Bleby as others were? Why did Hon. Bleby not provide her the right of reply? What happened to a “fair go”?
If Dr. Santiago-Brown was not involved, why is she mentioned 20+ times, her behaviour and her work allowed to be freely characterised by third parties and editorialised upon without the right of input or reply? If she was not involved, she should not appear in this report except peripherally and purely in factually based terms.
In either scenario, this report can only be understood as deeply flawed and an effort to paint Dr. Santiago-Brown in an unfavourable light. Why would WFA’s Board accept such an obviously deficient and mean-spirited document and publish it? What sort of people are these? What are they going to such lengths to protect?
In accepting and publishing this report, Mr. D’Aloisio and the WFA Board have both committed and compounded an error of governance that has created a needless liability for the entire WFA membership. This report must be formally and publicly withdrawn immediately.
All those responsible for this perversion from the initial redaction to Mr. D’Aloisio’s bizarre conclusions must accept responsibility and resign or be removed from positions of responsibility as a matter of decency and integrity for the benefit of the entire Australian wine industry.
Finally, WFA must issue Dr. Santiago-Brown a public apology for the indecent treatment she has experienced at the hands of those who should know better.
It serves the entire Australian wine industry’s worldwide reputation poorly to have admitted wrongdoers who have also been found to have done wrong by a third-party to be absolved of all wrongdoing by the President of the WFA. Simply put, WFA’s behaviour isn’t good enough. WFA’s near 400 members deserve better. That the other 2000+ non-members also get besmirched by this conduct is a pity.
It is up to WFA members (including WINEC committee members) and Board members to decide that enough is enough and demand immediate change.
If you want this matter to go away, make yourself heard. Email a board member, post a comment, write a letter.
Please do your bit to adjourn this kangaroo court and bring an end to this reign of error.
Or, maybe we’re not at rock bottom yet.