AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan standing in front of the AFL logo and behind microphones a
AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan (Image: AAP/James Ross)

We’ve had so many royal commissions of late — two into Crown Resorts, aged care, bushfires, veteran suicide, banking, mental health, family violence, pink batts, trade union governance, Lawyer X, etc — that it’s not such a great leap to call for a decent independent examination of one of Australia’s leading sporting institutions, the AFL.

That was the conclusion I reached after reading Michael Warner’s stunning new book, The Boys’ Club, which was launched by Hawthorn president and former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett last week.

Warner is the grandson of legendary war correspondent Denis Warner and his father is Nick Warner, one of Australia’s most decorated defence, intelligence and foreign affairs mandarins of the past 20 years.

That said, having spent his journalistic career at the Herald Sun, I assumed he wouldn’t make himself persona non grata with an important News Corp commercial partner like the AFL, particularly given that Foxtel shares AFL broadcasting rights with Seven.

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To the contrary, Warner signed up with Louise Adler at publishing house Hachette and didn’t miss anyone, lining up former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou for sustained criticism, as well as targeting current CEO Gillon McLachlan and their various boys’ clubs mates.

The book trawls over the various scandals (tanking, Essendon supplements, salary cap cheating, illicit drugs, etc) that have beset the AFL in recent years, many of which were covered as front-page stories by Warner and his Herald Sun colleagues.

However, it is the cronyism, related party transactions, media intimidation and deal-making spelt out in the book which really raises eyebrows.

Demetriou’s star has waned since he departed the AFL in 2014 for two main reasons — he was an overpaid consultant to the failed online education provider Acquire Learning and then put in a dreadful appearance at the Bergin inquiry which led to him effectively being forced off the Crown Resorts board by the NSW gaming regulator.

But it was still surprising to read what other business interests the AFL commissioners allowed him to pursue while being paid more than $15 million to run the code for more than a decade.

For instance, when the AFL was going relatively soft on the West Coast Eagles over illicit drug issues in the mid-2000s, it turns out that Demetriou had gone into the teeth importing business with then-Eagles president Dalton Gooding.

Kennett would normally be one of the last people you’d turn to for a lecture on good governance but these comments at the Warner book launch were right on the money:

The contents of this book are confronting and cannot be ignored by the AFL Commission and club presidents.

This book lists a whole range of failures, there are conflicts of interest within the commission and within the administration.

There are endless examples of bullying; there are inconsistent applications of the AFL’s policies; there is a lack of accountability.

But perhaps worst of all is the appalling treatment of many female employees over many years and because the AFL answers to no one, it is very much a law unto itself.

This book, in my opinion, should be read by every AFL president and chairperson, by every CEO, as an example of how not to do things, of how not to run a business.

The Age’s Caroline Wilson was critical of McLachlan’s record over the various culture revelations in the Warner book on ABC TV’s Offsiders program on Sunday, but she saved her harshest criticisms for Perth-based volunteer AFL chairman Richard Goyder, saying he was in hiding and failed to back McLachlan.

Goyder should indeed step up and say something, such as offer a timeframe for the appointment of an external CEO, preferably female, who will lead cultural change and bring the Demetriou-McLachlan era to an end.

The AFL Commission includes some well regarded business figures such as former Seek CEO Paul Bassat and former News Corp and Foxtel CEO Kim Williams. It would be interesting to hear their thoughts on the book, which spells out numerous failings in what amounts to the biggest media attack ever launched against the AFL.

For example, what on earth were the commissioners thinking ending the disclosure of McLachlan’s salary in the annual report three years ago? The commission should insist on the top five pay packets being disclosed, similar to that for public companies.

It is clear that some form of broader response by the commission is warranted, and governments should also take an interest given that the AFL is exempt from paying corporate tax and has benefited from enormous government largesse over the years — particularly for stadiums across Australia.

At the very least the AFL Commission should appoint an eminent person, such as sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, to review the claims by a growing number of women complaining about a culture of bullying inside the AFL.