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Former Hawks players, staff reportedly find common ground during Human Right Commission mediation talks

Andrew Mathieson -

Productive mediation between parties involved in the ongoing Hawthorn racism saga after two days of talks inside the Australian Human Rights Commission will result in a positive “resolution”, Hawthorn president Andy Gowers is anticipating.

The 1991 premiership player turned club director and now the public face of Hawthorn’s voting members said on Monday ahead of the home clash against Geelong that conciliation is set to repair multiple fractious relationships between retired players and ex-coaching staff.

Gowers attended both days and listened to the entire mediation last week, which also included Cyril Rioli ostensibly representing First Nations families against his only AFL coach, Alastair Clarkson, during a celebrated playing career from 2008 until 2018.

Rioli quit the game at the top level, aged just 28, in what many pundits believed he was still capable of giving plenty to the AFL, over claims of systemic racism at the club in which he won a rare four premierships, including three consecutively through 2013 to 2015.

The accusations of racism that an internal AFL investigation failed to find came from not only Rioli, but wife Shannyn Ah-Sam-Rioli, Jermaine Miller-Lewis, wife Montanah Miller-Lewis, Carl Peterson as well as ex-Aboriginal liaison officer Leon Egan.

The allegations were first uncovered publicly by a leaked review of the club’s treatment of its First Nations players, staff and wives under the Binmada report.

The club's accused staff reportedly isolated players from their family, told them to break up with their partners and in one case, were urged to terminate a pregnancy over putting their football careers first.

But that report was leaked before an opportunity was given to non-Indigenous parties that were identified to have their input into the strong allegations, which later led to the AFL to conduct its own independent report that officially found “no adverse findings”.

The three players, a former staffer and the two wives previously have asked Clarkson, former football manager Chris Fagan and one-time welfare manager Jason Burt since to each formally apologise despite previously all vehemently denying the allegations.

Gowers was openly optimistic on Monday about reaching a settlement between all of the parties involved, both collectively and individually, after 18 months of public hearsay and conjecture over what happened inside the walls of the most successful club in the VFL/AFL over the past 50 years.

“The phrase ‘mending fences’ is the best description I could give everyone because it’s exactly what we are trying to do with former players and their families, and former coaches and their families,” Gowers told 3AW radio.

“We’re trying to reach a resolution; we had the Australian Human Rights Commission process last week and it was a really positive step towards resolution.

“So we are trying to resolve it.

“The Australian Human Rights Commission process is a confidential one, and I am bound by confidentiality, but the small window I am allowed to let people in on is last week was a good step towards a resolution.

“We want an appropriate, fair outcome for everyone involved in a timely manner.”

Hawthorn is pushing for a resolution from the conciliation to avoid Rioli and what is a united Indigenous front taking litigation into an open Federal court where all of the nine members involved in the case would give their version of events but under oath.

The AFL has been cleared of any facing legal action over their role in the allegations.

The club, as a part of the conciliation process, have a war chest of around $1.5 million set aside to pay out compensation to not only the First Nations complainants but also the accused three men over damages to their public reputation in the football industry.

Part of that money could also include the Hawks paying for Clarkson’s legal bills separate from further compensation.

But some supporters, including noted club identities, have vehemently objected to the offers of financial restitution from the club.

Gowers added that Hawthorn must end on the right side of history and changes towards a more inclusive approach are already in progress.

“The football department has been remarkable in their focus and the club in general,” Gowers said.

“There is a cloud – that is a good description.

“There is a cloud over our club and we are trying to resolve it.”

Rioli’s camp want Hawthorn to adopt the fabric of Collingwood’s “Do Better” report that includes apologies to all past players that confronted racism either at Glenferrie or at Waverley across multiple eras.

They also want a structured “truth-telling” framework, already put in place by the Magpies after admitting to decades of systemic racism.

Former 1970s Hawks great, Don Scott, who once rescued the club from a predestined merger in 1996 with Melbourne, has said Gowers and his handpicked board should stand down over its initial inaction and resolutions towards the accusations.

Scott further felt “heads should roll” should compensation payments be freely handed over without a mandate from paid-up Hawks members.

“They have set aside $1.5 million and I reckon it’s already cost them that again in legal representation – so somebody has got to fall on their sword,” he said.

“Why have they got to pay this money out when the AFL said they have got no case to answer?

“It’s not their (the board’s) money – it is club and members’ money, but it’s easy to give away when it’s not yours.

“The Hawthorn members have been hoodwinked.”

Legal costs are expected to have cost the club around the $1 million mark, the club confirmed publicly, that doesn’t even include a possible compensation pay out.

Clarkson at the end of the conciliation had expressed gratitude towards the Australian Human Rights Commission’s mediation process after talks appear to have led towards a far more positive a favourable outcome inside the offices of Arnold Bloch Leibler.

Clarkson, unlike Fagan, spent both days in discussion to broker an agreement with the First Nations’ lawyers following past legal threats from them.

The agreement that will include an apology may involve careful phrasing of words in a potential statement that express regret, if not an unreserved full apology, at the very least.

Clarkson has made it clear in the strongest possible terms previously that both he and Fagan are not guilty of racism in any forms.

But 18 months on from first facing the allegations, Clarkson has praised the Australian Human Rights Commission for giving the parties a platform to come together.

“Could I start this by expressing my gratitude to the Human Rights Commission for providing the platform for us to all get together and try to resolve a dispute that’s been ongoing for the past 18 months,” he said a day after mediation had concluded.

“The last two days have represented the first chance that we have had to sit down together and do what you should always do in trying to resolve difficult situations, and that’s talk about it.

“That was really productive and a worthwhile two days, but the process is actually incomplete and until such time that it is over, then we’re bound by confidentiality to not discuss anything about the proceedings at all.”

The positive response to curious reporters in Melbourne bodes well against a Federal Court process taking place that potentially could add a further year to the process if mediation falls over, which would also cost the parties’ former football club more money should it reach court.

Clarkson and Fagan were unable to take the reins of their respective training sessions last Tuesday and Wednesday that ended up in round-three losses for North Melbourne and Brisbane.

But Clarkson found perspective from the process, looking back at the bigger picture.

“It’s amazing how you compartmentalise and get things done,” he said.

“It was a really important step to take, and as I said we’re really grateful that the Human Rights Commission provided that platform for us.”

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