Hawthorn players urged to speak to Yoorrook truth and justice commission

Victoria’s First Nations truth-telling commission has encouraged the families at the centre of the Hawthorn racism probe to come before the royal commission-style inquiry to tell their stories, and has asserted for the first time its right to investigate racial issues in sport more broadly.

Its potential involvement in probing the issues raised at Hawthorn comes amid fresh questions about the independence of the AFL’s own investigation and a reluctance by some families to participate in that inquiry.

Yoorrook Justice Commission chair Eleanor Bourke encouraged First Peoples who have been affected by racism in sport to tell the truth of their experiences to the commission.Credit:Justin McManus

Yoorrook Justice Commission chair Eleanor Bourke said the allegations made by Indigenous players against the Hawthorn Football Club and several of its former coaches and staff could become part of the work of the inquiry, which was established to hear past and ongoing injustices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in Victoria since colonisation.

“Yoorrook is not involved in the process being undertaken at Hawthorn. However, the commission can investigate racism in sport,” Bourke told The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. “We encourage First Peoples who have been affected by racism in sport to tell the truth of their experiences to us.”

The commission has the same powers as a Royal Commission, including the ability to compel witnesses to appear and subpoena documents. It does not have the judicial power of a court of law, but can refer information it acquires through its hearings to law enforcement authorities.

It is unclear if the commission would use those powers to investigate Hawthorn, but potential submissions could be made by the families and former staff at the centre of Hawthorn’s own cultural safety review.

Yoorrook Justice Commissioners (L-R) Professor Maggie Walter, Dr Wayne Atkinson, Bourke, deputy chair Sue-Anne Hunter and Professor Kevin Bell.Credit:Twitter/Yoorrook Justice Commission

“There is a long history of Aboriginal excellence within Australian sports,” Bourke said.

“Many clubs have built highly successful teams around their First Peoples players. There is an equally long history of racism and discrimination towards First Peoples, from local leagues to elite level competition. It should not be happening and must end.”

The Hawthorn review contained testimonies from former players and their partners alleging that between 2010 and 2016 they were forced to separate from each other. One Indigenous player alleged he was told that his partner had to terminate her pregnancy. Former Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson and former football manager Chris Fagan have denied any wrongdoing and have taken a leave of absence from their current AFL club roles.

On Wednesday, the AFL announced the appointment of a four-person panel headed by Bernard Quinn, KC, and featuring barristers Julie Buxton, Tim Goodwin and Jacqualyn Turfrey. The AFL said the Indigenous members, Goodwin and Turfrey, would provide “additional outside expertise, whether that be in cultural safety, football administration or any other area”.

The AFL has appointed the legal panel to oversee its investigation into the allegations contained in Hawthorn’s cultural safety review of Indigenous player experiences at the club. From left: Bernard Quinn KC, barrister Jacqualyn Turfrey, barrister Tim Goodwin, and barrister Julie Buxton.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said the AFL was asked to put together an independent panel and that its terms of reference and recommendations would be transparent to the public. But one AFL insider not authorised to speak publicly on the matter expressed concerns about the panel’s independence from the AFL.

The insider noted that Goodwin, a Yuin man, was mentored by the AFL’s current general manager of inclusion and social policy, Tanya Hosch.

In a 2013 article published by The Guardian, Goodwin attributed his professional achievements to Hosch’s mentorship writing: “I must especially mention Tanya Hosch … To put it simply, without her I would not know what I know, I would not have done what I have done, and I would not have achieved whatever I have achieved.”

At the time, Hosch was the deputy director of Recognise, a public relations campaign to foster awareness and support for constitutional reform to acknowledge First Nations peoples in Australia. Hosch and Goodwin did not respond to questions.

AFL spokesman Brian Walsh said Goodwin was an outstanding choice for the panel and that it should be judged on its approach and results.

“We think his experience and his integrity are beyond question and his duty is to the investigation, not to Tanya or anybody else [within the AFL Commission],” Walsh said.

“If the AFL precluded itself from considering Indigenous experts who had some contact or professional relationship with Tanya over the period of her professional life, it would be diluting considerably the talent pool available to it for this and other important work.”

Lawyer Judy Courtin, who is representing one of the former players and former partners who contributed to Hawthorn’s cultural safety review, asked how the AFL investigation could remain independent.

“An inquiry that is paid for and established by the AFL, and absent of any input from my clients, is not and cannot be independent,” she said, adding that her clients would “wait and see” whether they participated in the AFL’s investigation.

Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan.Credit:Getty Images

She also pointed out that the league was establishing and funding a panel to investigate a club that had a member of the AFL’s governing body as president during part of the period under investigation.

Courtin said her clients had only agreed to engage in the Hawthorn review because they thought it would be for “the betterment of future First Nations players” and had subsequently been left exposed and traumatised.

She declined to comment on the potential of her clients making a submission to the Yoorrook Justice Commission inquiry.

Lawyer Leon Zwier, who is representing other former players and their family members at the centre of the racism review, also declined to comment.

The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria – the democratically elected body representing First Nations people in the state – confirmed it had not been approached by either the AFL or Hawthorn regarding the racism scandal.

Assembly co-chair Geraldine Atkinson, a Bangerang and Wiradjuri elder, supported Bourke’s comments.

“We set up the Yoorrook Justice Commission because we know racism is insidious and reaches into all aspects of society and can have a corrosive effect on institutions. The broader community needs to hear and understand our stories and experiences of how racism still damages and holds us back,” Atkinson said.

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