The opening of Melbourne’s Crown Casino in 1997 was a glittering occasion in every respect: Ray Charles, John Farnham and Kylie Minogue sang for the high-wattage audience, then Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, officially opened the place and the whole shebang was televised nationally.
As was his practice back then, Kennett took a moment or two of his speech to attack the paper I was then editing, The Age, and, indirectly, some of the key executives who’d accepted opening night invites. Because The Age had questioned aspects of the casino bidding process and the sheer scale of the project, we were somehow being hypocritical by turning up to feast at the trough.
His observations drew applause and a degree of sniggering from the black-tied throng. It was typical of the kind of Groupthink that prevailed in the Kennett years, where you were either with his government or against it. There was no middle ground in those days.
As fate would have it that night, my wife and I were led to a table that also included Tania and James Hird. We exchanged pleasantries, enjoyed the food, wine and entertainment and then bid each other farewell at the end of the evening. It would be years before I would meet Tania Hird again. On each occasion, though our conversation was mostly small talk, she struck me as a very intelligent and forthright woman.
The memory of that mid-nineties meeting came back to me for a couple of reasons last week when Ms Hird was vilified by much of the football world for defending her husband in a report on the ABC’s 7.30 into bullying by the AFL.
The report also quoted Kennett, journalist Chip Le Grand and lawyer Chris Pollard. But you wouldn’t have known that the next morning.
The way Ms Hird’s involvement was reported, you’d swear she’d called a public meeting on the steps of AFL House to denounce all and sundry. In fact, she’d merely participated in an extended report on a subject much broader than the treatment of her husband.
She was a victim of the same sort of Groupthink that typified the Kennett government and that casino opening, fuelled by some stakeholders keen to keep on the good side of an administration that could reward or punish them as they saw fit.
In no time at all last week, commentators from all quarters – including this website – condemned her for speaking out on behalf of her husband. Huh? So everyone else can have an opinion on James Hird, but not the person who married him, bore his children and understands him best?
Ms Hird impressed me far more than Essendon chairman Paul Little who for some unfathomable reason went on FM radio on Friday, calling on his exiled coach to “control the people around him” which is presumably code for, “his missus”.
This led to fevered speculation that Hird was about to be sacked because of his wife’s comments. In fact, there are still some who believe that should happen. They have a name for people who think like that: cave-dwellers. If Little and the Essendon board who, by the way, have escaped any odium over the club’s supplements scandal, did move on Hird, I’d love to be his employment lawyer.
All may be known tomorrow, with the club issuing a statement saying the the Hird “matter” had been referred to a meeting of the board – eight men, one woman, of course. Some reports suggested Tania Hird had been “summoned” to the meeting and would be ordered to embrace a code of silence if she wants her husband to keep his job. Good grief. I hope at least some of this is true and she does turn up – and go full Harper Valley PTA on them.
While they’re at it, the board might ask a few questions of their chairman too. Because if it’s right to condemn Tania Hird for speaking in the first instance, it sure as hell would be right to condemn Little for speaking out of turn too. Strangely, few in the football media decided to take him on – Ms Hird is a much easier target, I suppose.
As an Essendon supporter, I would have preferred Ms Hird had kept her own counsel, particularly on the eve of the club’s new AFL season. But I can absolutely understand why she would feel compelled to speak out – as a lawyer she would abhor the processes followed by the AFL and as a wife she would feel her husband was sorely mistreated. Why any commentator interested in the free-flow of ideas and opinions would decry her public frankness and honesty is beyond me.
Back in August last year, James Hird made a very difficult decision to put aside his desire to fight the AFL in the courts. He did so, in part, under pressure from club officials, including Little, who understandably wanted to put the whole sorry saga behind them. I suspect the Hirds now regret that decision, particularly when they reflect on those flawed processes that led to James’s suspension. That said, as I’ve written elsewhere, AFL bosses probably got the penalties right.
If there is to be communication between the Essendon board and the Hirds it should simply be to remind the coach and his wife that a deal’s a deal. The AFL and the Essendon Football Club bought his silence and James Hird is going to have to live with that now. And while it didn’t include Tania Hird, from this point on they probably should act as if it did.
If they acknowledge this – and the club acknowledges that there’s been overheated rhetoric on all sides – we might finally get some peace. Then we can wish the admirable Ms Hird, her husband and their family a bon voyage. Within weeks they will begin an extended sojourn in France, away from AFL football. Half their luck. Who knows, maybe while they’re away they’ll conclude they don’t want to return to the AFL fishbowl. Who could blame them?
In the meantime, I hope they enjoy their break as much as we all will.