On Wednesday morning, an announcement came: “Amy”, the Gunditjmara and Bunitji woman who has alleged that Hawthorn Football Club, while she was partnered to one of its players, pressured her to abort her unborn child, declared through her lawyers that she would not participate with the inquiry established by the AFL last month.
The allegations were contained in an ABC report in September, and echoed some of the stories given to Hawthorn’s internal inquiry conducted earlier this year into the treatment of its Indigenous players. “Amy” says that while she was partnered with “Ian”, the two were manipulated, forced apart and coerced to estrange themselves from family. Amy has alleged that the pressure was applied by senior staff, including then coach Alastair Clarkson and his deputy, Chris Fagan. Four other First Nations families have made similar accusations about “traumatising” coercions that sought to better assimilate them into the football club in the period between 2008 and 2016.
The statement, released by her legal representatives at Marque Lawyers, says: “Amy has had to work through the guilt she feels at having stayed silent back then; that perhaps, had she said something, she could have prevented it happening to others. Although, as she says, ‘it’s a little hard to speak up when it feels like your voice box has been pulled out of your throat’.”
Clarkson and Fagan, who are now the senior coaches of North Melbourne and Brisbane, respectively, have emphatically denied the allegations and have promised to vigorously defend themselves in the inquiry. Amy’s statement was released on the day Clarkson began as coach of the Kangaroos, and he took questions at the club’s ground. “We will work through that with the AFL investigation,” Clarkson said. “All we do know is that there have been three or four clubs in the competition over the last 20 years that have been really, really strong clubs, really, really successful clubs, and those clubs have had magnificent cultures, and Hawthorn has been one of those.
“So, I would be very, very surprised if we weren’t able to put a really, really strong case forward that these allegations have been reported in a different way than we saw them when we were at the club … There is a lot more depth and history to what has transpired. We will get the chance in the investigation to outline that.”
When the allegations were first published, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan addressed the media about the “distressing” claims and promised – quite remarkably – to have an investigative panel established within 24 hours. This time line was implausible and unfulfilled – it would take weeks to establish – but the conspicuous haste troubled the families.
One month ago, McLachlan announced the panel had been established, and comprised four lawyers, two of them First Nations Australians: Bernard Quinn, KC, Tim Goodwin, Julie Buxton and Jacqualyn Turfrey. “We’ve got an independent panel of eminent people, a balanced panel that we have announced today. [Clarkson’s] legal team have given feedback on the terms of reference, as have all interested parties,” McLachlan said at the time. “I feel we are taking this incredibly seriously and we are doing as we have been asked to do in a very difficult circumstance.”
McLachlan said the panel would return its findings before Christmas and that their report would be made public.
In her statement this week, Amy says she will refuse to participate in the inquiry for several reasons. She says the inquiry – despite the AFL’s assurances – is not independent. “The process which the AFL has determined to pursue is not independent of it,” the statement reads. “While we cast no aspersions on the nominated investigation panel members, the entire process will be conducted under the control of the AFL and for the AFL’s purposes. If the AFL is genuinely concerned to unearth and expose the full depth of racist mistreatment of First Nations players and their families by one or more of its clubs, then it should engage an external body with appropriate expertise, operating completely independently of the AFL, to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the systemic racist abuses that the revelations regarding Hawthorn have exposed.”
The statement also argues that the inquiry will aggravate, not alleviate, the alleged trauma. “The investigation won’t respond to the findings of the Hawthorn Cultural Safety Review but rather interrogate whether the incidents of abuse even took place, which is a huge insult to the many First Nations players and family members who were brave enough to come forward to share and relive the trauma they experienced. The question the AFL should be asking itself is not ‘Did these things happen?’ but ‘How did these things happen on our watch?’
“The ToR [terms of reference] say that the testimonies of First Nations people might be ‘inaccurate or unreliable’ because of ‘cultural differences’. While this makes hypervisible the cultural otherness of First Nations players so as to diminish their reliability as witnesses, it makes no reference to the matter of race and gender and the invariable power imbalance at play in the assessment of evidence. In fact, until Amy pointed it out, ‘racist behaviour’ and ‘racialised and/or gendered stereotyping’ weren’t even mentioned in the ToR … The plan is to reduce the issue of systemic racism to a simple question of contested facts.”
A third objection is about the “unseemly” haste of the process, which the statement argues is placing undue stress on the families. “There is no good reason for the urgency, but it will only do further harm to any victims who participate in it,” it reads. “It is ironic that, again, it is First Nations players and their families who are expected to sublimate their own interests to the AFL’s imperatives … Clearly there is a desire to get this matter out of the way before the 2023 season.”
In addition, the statement from Marque Lawyers argues that the inquiry will be “culturally unsafe” and intrusive and objects to the inquiry’s demands for medical records on not only the Hawthorn players but their families. “There is no safety in this; no regard to or respect for privacy, no cultural sensitivity, only brutal intrusion upon the most intimate and traumatic experiences in the lives of the victims of Hawthorn’s mistreatment.”
The Saturday Paper understands that Amy and her representatives were troubled by differences between the drafted terms of reference shared with them for their input, and the final version, and that the AFL has “imposed” the investigaion on the families.
In response to Amy’s statement, the AFL issued the following: “We acknowledge the pain, trauma and grief of the experience from ‘Amy’ in the statement and it reinforces how serious these allegations are, and how important it is that the AFL treat them appropriately while ensuring a formal process that provides the opportunity to bring their experiences direct to the Independent Review in a supportive and respectful process to those impacted, and natural justice to those people against whom allegations of misconduct have been made.
“As previously stated, the matter was brought to the AFL by the Hawthorn Football Club along with the consultant that undertook the review, and given the seriousness of the allegations, it was important to set up an independent external investigation that provides a clear and safe process to investigate the matters.
“The AFL can only investigate the matter under AFL Rules, as that is the only jurisdiction we have the ability to determine and – as we have said previously – our process doesn’t stop any impacted person from taking separate legal action or seeking redress in another forum or jurisdiction.”
The AFL also said the creation of the inquiry – its panel’s composition and its terms of reference – was an act of satisfying multiple parties, and that not everyone got what they requested.
It is a sorrowful mess at the moment, and has delayed McLachlan’s vacation of the role of AFL chief. He was due to step down in September, at the end of the 2022 season.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "A question of independence".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription