Bill Kelty: "They have to decide whether or not they want to continue the saga."

Bill Kelty: "They have to decide whether or not they want to continue the saga." Photo: Lee Besford

AFL Commissioner Bill Kelty says James and Tania Hird need to decide whether they “want to continue the saga” of the Essendon drugs investigation that marred last season and has over boiled again before the Bombers’ first game of 2014. 

Explaining publicly, for the first time, why he stood aside from formal negotiations in the most damaging issue the AFL has confronted, Kelty said he had several private discussions with Hird last year after initially trying to minimise the extent of the scandal with league chiefs. 

The former head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions denied he’d ever recommended to Hird it would be better if he stood aside.

Asked whether Tania Hird’s decision to re-visit, in a television interview, some of the most explosive elements of the story on the eve of Essendon’s first match – and before she joins her husband in France where he will study while suspended from coaching – Kelty told ABC radio 774: “That’s up to the Essendon Football Club. And it’s up to James and it’s up to Tania. They have to make their own assessments in life. They have to decide whether or not they want to continue the saga.

“If they think James has been unfairly dealt with then they should say that. If that’s their collective view.

“If the Essendon Football Club think that they’ve been unfairly dealt with they should say that. But what is not fair for Andrew (Demetriou) is … for it to be continuously said by people that in some way he acted improperly. It’s just not fair. He acted honorably and professionally throughout the process as far as I was concerned. And I stood aside from it.” 

Kelty said it was his relationship with Essendon chairman David Evans that moved him to stand aside from formal dealings with the Bombers saga. Evans resigned in the middle of last season, with the club citing a turn of ill health. 

“I have a very special relationship with David Evans. David Evans is like a son to me,” Kelty said.

“I said instantly, once it was clear that it was Essendon, that I had to stand aside. Not because it was Essendon Football Club, but because it was David Evans chairing the board. Because nobody would expect of me, and I couldn’t expect of myself, that I would not be caring and try to look after David, so I did stand aside.” 

Kelty said he had “a number of discussions” with Hird last year - “but they’re private discussions,” he said. 

Acknowledging it had been a consideration of league chiefs - in the very early days of the episode that became public in February - whether the AFL should ask Hird to stand aside, Kelty said he had advised his colleagues that such a move might risk denying Hird natural justice. 

Kelty said when the AFL first became aware of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigation into Essendon, league CEO Demetriou convened a meeting that included him, and the head of the AFL commission, Mike Fitzpatrick. 

“We had a discussion, the three of us, and we said we should have a special commission to deal with these charges,” he said.

“I had a concern that the AFL had sub-contracted out the responsibility and that we couldn’t clearly say to the parents or to the players that this drug was authorized, and this was not authorized because we’d sub-contracted the work out. And I thought we should bring it back in. I thought we had a responsibility to deal with that and deal with it quickly, and effectively to reclaim the ground, revert back to what it was.

“We were entitled to have more conservative view[s] about some of these things than ASADA or anybody else. We should regain control. And that was a position I put, which was ultimately the position that the Commission adopted.” 

Seeming to lament that the matter had become so personality-driven, Kelty said: “The one most important thing is the welfare of the players ... it’s not about James, it’s not about me, and it’s not about Andrew. And Essendon Football Club will have to make their assessments about those tests.

“…this was an issue that was always about the welfare of the players and the integrity of the game.”