It was on Monday night, in the cosy confines of Jeff Kennett’s Cremorne corner store, that an influential group of Victorian club presidents met to reinforce their place in the pecking order of the labyrinthine Australian Football League.
The gathering was orchestrated by Kennett, Eddie McGuire and Peter Gordon with a view to forcing a cultural correction in football’s increasingly complex and multi-layered structure. The view of the presidents is that their voices have become muted. The growing fear was that clubs were becoming akin to franchisees under the umbrellas of McDonalds or 7-Eleven.
Geelong chairman Colin Carter, the president assigned the task of reporting the clubs’ concerns back to head office, has this week contacted Richard Goyder to communicate the big-picture issues. A brief summary of the clubs’ concerns was also communicated to the AFL in writing.
Seven club presidents – Carter, Gordon, Kennett, McGuire, Peggy O’Neal, Glen Bartlett and Mark LoGiudice – attended the Kennett-hosted function, which took place over drinks and finger food alongside his bar heavily stocked with whiskey and cloaked in an atmosphere both warm and collegiate.
All those who spoke with Fairfax Media confirmed strong support for the game’s chief executive Gillon McLachlan and his chairman Goyder, but equally stressed a lack of communication, meaningful conversation and transparency had become a serious problem where matters of the game and the clubs were concerned.
One hot topic was football’s illicit drugs policy, a heavily negotiated agreement between the AFL and its players which has increasingly shut out the clubs.
In a week in which premiership coach Mark Thompson has been charged with serious drug offences and in the wake of former St Kilda president Rod Butterss’ revelations of drug abuse during his time at the Saints, two clubs spoke of their frustration at being prevented by head office from implementing drug testing across their entire club.
Another was the AFL’s failure to communicate its support of gay marriage with the YES statement emblazoning headquarters at the height of the marriage equality debate last year – a policy position and stand some presidents felt was not the role of the league and at the very least caught clubs off guard.
And the presidents had some sympathy with Port Adelaide chairman David Koch, whose frustration at being shut out of the Sam Powell-Pepper investigation spiralled the previous week into a war of words with the AFL. The Kennett gathering wants a revision of the respect and responsibility policy and its investigative methods.
Tired of not being consulted on issues culturally crucial to the game – the AFL’s attempt to refashion club songs without communicating that to club bosses was a classic example – several presidents believe they are not only being ignored at times but also disrespected.
Being required to fill in an online registration form along with every other AFL, club and media employee raised a number of eyebrows, with at least one president – Kennett – refusing to do so.
At a time the AFL – in partnership with the Victorian Government – is moving into property development, entertainment and the hotel industry along with ground management and establishing AFLW and AFLX, the view of some influential presidents is that McLachlan is severely under-resourced in executive terms.
Not to mention overseeing an internal police force and forays into China and India with no wider club consultation or stated general policy. Despite the clubs’ reliance on gaming revenue, some presidents have become increasingly concerned with the AFL’s strong relationship with gambling advertising and its growing influence on young supporters.
Their view is that three or four meetings a year between 18 club presidents, nine commissioners and McLachlan’s executives have become information sessions largely generating no ideas and that, as a group, the presidents and their extensive cultural memories are under-utilised. They are not pushing for more meetings but rather more meaningful dialogue with the commission.
The 7-Eleven analogy was mentioned, along with a growing frustration that the 18 clubs – many of whom are being overseen by bosses installed by the AFL – are being referred to as stakeholders and not shareholders.
The presidents’ gathering was Victorian-centric purely for logistical reasons, with only Essendon’s Lindsay Tanner, St Kilda’s Peter Summers and North’s Ben Buckley, who lives in Sydney, unable to attend of the local Victorian bloc.
Kennett’s inner-Melbourne property was the subject of a Fairfax Media investigation last year into a taxpayer-funded arrangement, which revealed the former Premier was leasing the office space from his wife Felicity’s superannuation fund after vacating his Treasury Place rooms at the request of the then Bracks Government.
Kennett attacked that report as “mischief”. Either way. the former Balmain Street grocery shop – the oldest surviving corner store in Cremorne – has played host in recent years to all-male gatherings involving the likes of Gillon McLachlan and Garry Lyon, meetings with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and a get-together of the high-profile Hawthorn crew, notably media stars Anthony (“Lehmo”) Lehmann, Steve Quartermain, John Silvester and Ross Stevenson.
Kennett’s famous whiskey collection did not get the going-over on Monday night it has been known to on some of the above-mentioned occasions, but the atmosphere in the room – though not mutinous – was fuelled nonetheless.