I have been a member of the Board of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Industry Association (MVGWTA) for most of the past 9 years and served as its Chair between 2008 and 2010. During that time, MVGWTA has gone from being effectively bankrupt with annual membership revenues of about $450,000 to an organisation with approximately $600,000 in the bank and about $800,000 in member revenue this fiscal year.
During my time as Chair, we implemented a dual (Growers and Wine makers) levy system for revenue, implemented a Constitution (remarkably, there had been none before), ended “managed” and unaudited elections as well as nearly a decade of systemic rorting of the Association by some of its founding members. As should be expected, none of this served to enhance my popularity with the beneficiaries of the prior arrangements.
Then Board members Andrew Kay, CEO of Wirra Wirra, Tim Althaus of Primo Estate and volunteer Lincoln Ridley, Controller at D’Arenberg, provided critical support for our efforts to create financial stability and governance transparency during these years and deserve recognition for their contributions.
Perhaps the most important thing we did was to officially buried the historical differences between the different industry sectors by agreeing that the core focus of the Association was the marketing / promotion of the regional brand “McLaren Vale” as well as protection of its rural character.
Between 2009 and 2013, we successfully lobbied to prevent 6000 houses being built at Bowering Hill and Glenthorne Farm, obtained permanent protection for a large part of our wine grape growing region from future subdivision via the “Character and Preservation Act (McLaren Vale)” state legislation, substituted 1 gigalitre (one billion litres or enough for 2500 households) annually of non-potable reclaimed water that was previously dumped in the Gulf of St. Vincent for mains drinking water that had been previously used in irrigation and thereby saved at least 60 growers from extinction due to the quadrupling of mains water prices, published the most detailed Geology Map of any wine growing region in the world, developed and rolled out one of the finest viticultural sustainability programs (Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (“SAW”)) in the world, achieved 50%+ adoption of SAW as well as gifting SAW to the rest of the Australian wine industry.
Since 2013, The Epicurean Way – linking the wine regions around Adelaide – and Adelaide’s inclusion in the Great Wine Capitals of the World program have also been implemented. Both of these are ideas that were initiated by us in 2008-2010. While many critique these accomplishments by saying we upset too many people along the way, all of these were accomplished with some degree of state and / or federal government support or engagement. Governments tend to only support things once the balance of support has shifted.
While I was personally involved with all of these projects, all were a culmination of the tireless voluntary contributions and collaboration of numerous community residents, volunteers and believers in the future of the McLaren Vale wine tourism region. Central to these efforts were our state MP (now) Minister Leon Bignell and then Federal MP Amanda Rishworth, grapegrowers Jock Harvey and Richard Leask, viticulturists Irina Santiago-Brown (my now wife), Derek Cameron and James Hook, journalist and industry historian Philip White, former publisher Stephanie Johnston as well as former MVGWTA executives Elizabeth Tasker and Marc Allgrove. Anyone who knows these folks know that while they don’t play on the same political teams or move in the same social circles, they all share our long term vision for McLaren Vale as a world class wine tourism region.
The umbrella vehicle we used to accomplish all of this was the MVGWTA – frequently over the opposition of some of our own nay-saying members as well as numerous industry and government bodies – and generally with very little funding. While success has a thousand fathers, the people mentioned did the heavy lifting. Folks like these embody what a thoughtful and industrious rural community looks like.
Simply put, no wine region in Australia can claim to have accomplished so much in the last ten years to position itself for the future. We knew we didn’t have all the answers and that we were building the cornerstones for the foundation of what we believed would become McLaren Vale’s moment on the world stage of wine.
After Tom Harvey became Chair in 2013, the Board worked diligently to put the Association on a sound administrative footing to be able to hire a permanent management team and Chair (former SA Labor Minister) John Hill in early 2015. Having done so was a moment of pride for many of us. We thought we just might be, finally, on a glide path to great things.
So, to now find myself resigning from this Board over what I consider to be fundamental matters of fairness, competence and transparency (let alone outcomes) – particularly with respect to the current Board elections – is a great disappointment. I will not lend my name to them.
Freed from the constraints of my responsibilities to the Board as an four-time elected Grower member, I am at liberty to observe publicly that the matters raised in the letter appended below are part of a larger, documented pattern of unaccountable behaviour which it is fair for levy members to be aware of and question closely. Levy payers and members are free to contact me directly if they wish to know more.
The text of my letter to Chair John Hill – and his response – is appended below:
24 November 2016
Attention: John Hill
Chair, McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Industry Association (“MVGWTA”)
1) You were notified in writing that the elections to the Board of the MVGWTA have been interfered with by the management of the Association on at least two occasions on behalf of at least one candidate,
2) That one instance of said interference (according to the candidate) resulted in the candidate being eligible who would not have been otherwise eligible due to an incomplete nomination form,
3) That the second instance of interference (switching the same candidate’s industry sector) could be seen to be attempting to maximise the candidate’s chance of election to a Board seat,
4) That said interference has not attracted any disciplinary action,
I can only conclude that you approve of management’s interference in, or management of, Board elections.
Moreover, using deficient sector selection rationale, incorrect election forms were sent out to Wine sector levy payers and Wine sector ballots to some Grape sector levy payers. Apparently, an email was sent out to attempt to correct the former mistake. In my case, I received a Wine sector ballot while being a Board member for the Grape sector.
On the Wine sector ballot, a candidate who is supposed to be in the Grape sector is listed. Both mistakes will cause confusion and possible harm in both sector’s elections. In short, almost every aspect of this election has been managed improperly.
Regardless of what rationale you apply to this situation, the other candidates for the Board position(s) in question have been treated unfairly by the outcome(s) of your decision to accept repeated interference on behalf of at least one candidate.
Elections must be – and be seen to be – both free of interference and fair to all candidates. This election does not appear to meet either criterion. Having been notified, this is your responsibility alone.
Having spent most of ten years ensuring that this sort of institutional behavior was excised from our Association, I cannot knowingly condone, defend or lend my imprimatur as a Director to an election that appears to be deliberately managed or interfered with by management, either in its process or outcome.
Your failure to enforce the separation of management from Board elections and to ensure that the elections are both free and fair leaves me no option but to resign as Director effective immediately.
Our levy payers and community deserve better.
Of all the personal traits valued in business, accountability is paramount. We may not agree with people who are accountable, but we understand them. Those who are not accountable for themselves, their choices and their subordinates are always eventually found out in positions of actual responsibility. And, it never ends well.
Five + hours after sending the above email to Hill and the Board, Hill (also known as “Mr. Teflon” by journalists – see the link for a better understanding of his modus operandi) sent a reply email to me and the elected Directors who I had copied. He also copied the recently appointed Board Member (appointed to advise the Board on “risk” – a new thing under Hill) who is also the Returning Officer for the election as well as General Manager Jen Lynch (who is not a Director) both of whom I had deliberately not copied, saying:
“Directors (sic) I note Dudley’s letter to me (copied to you) re election. As the election has been under the control of the RO (sic) I have referred it to him for any comment.
In Hill’s recently published book, On Being a Minister: Behind the Mask (currently ranked #1,932,486 in the Amazon Kindle Store) Hill writes “A crisis is what happens when the minister doesn’t deal effectively, openly and completely with a problem. You have to be decisive – and get involved. Generally for operational matters ministers should be at arm’s length, but when problems emerge they have to get their hands dirty.”
As the Chair had been previously notified of significant and prejudicial irregularities and interference by management in the electoral process for the Board, the only responsible party is the Chair to take action to resolve these matters. To pretend that the Returning Officer is alone responsible for “comment” or action on these irregularities, despite no formal reporting structure between management and the Returning Officer, is nonsense.
The fact is that the Chair is both aware of and appears to approve of these irregularities despite the fact that they are both deeply unfair to the other candidates nominated and confusing to the levy paying electors. By Hill’s own definition, he has created this crisis by not dealing “effectively, openly and completely with a problem.”
Rather, “Mr. Teflon” is distancing himself from being accountable for this mess (and others) while still pretending he has the skills to be Chair. Either the Chair accepts responsibility for mistakes made on their watch or they don’t – that is the standard by which they are measured.
There is no room for Rann-era ministerial blame shifting in an organisation of three employees or for one so ready for opportunistic, market oriented management and governance.
My fear is that 10 years of smart, community based foundation building for Brand Mclaren Vale will be frittered away by Hill’s “anaesthetist” routine instead of being the basis for McLaren Vale’s moment in the global world of wine.
McLaren Vale has a more diverse (more female winemakers, more winemakers from other countries, more grape varieties, soil profiles and unique geology, you name it), exciting and interesting (most ecologically sustainable wine region in the driest state on the driest continent, new winemaking styles, spirit of community and camaraderie rarely found elsewhere, etc) story than any region in Australia.
In an era where these authentic attributes are the most prized currency of regional wine tourism marketing, Hill and Lynch spent just 3% of the Association’s revenues on marketing Brand McLaren Vale last year while busily standardising various committee terms of reference and checking the easy KPI boxes while 8 of 10 of their employees and contractors resigned or were terminated.
18 months after being hired, Hill and Lynch still don’t have a forward plan for the capital cities and international marketing that they were hired to develop in their first months in the job, let alone the basic regional marketing pitch. It took me six months of mostly unrequited questioning to discover this.
The GM received a $10,000 pay increase in her first annual review and one contractor was paid out $20,000 (or, the levies paid on 1200 tonnes of grapes or 500-600 acres of production – poof!) to just “go away.” Spending others people money comes easily to this administration.
The McLaren Vale moment recedes before us.
In Hill’s book, he wrote “In politics the truly successful ministers are the ones who fall in love with their portfolios, because they then become passionate about their responsibilities, making it easier for them to persuade others.” Fellow Labor Minister Michael Atkinson commented on Hill’s observation that “The downside of this is that some Ministers…become hand puppets of their chief executive.”
While I have yet to personally see any results of Hill’s “passionate” responsibility to promote our region, after 18 months of reasonably close observation, I can confirm that Atkinson knew his mark well.