Julian Burnside, QC

Julian Burnside, QC

Amidst furious speculation about James Hird’s future, the barrister and human rights advocate who led his dealings with the AFL last year says a sacking would be an “outrageous” response to fresh criticism tabled by the suspended coach’s wife.

Saying the “big bully” AFL was now “behaving a bit like a sook”, Julian Burnside, QC, raised the prospect of the league “leaning” on Essendon, given the saga that spoiled last season has erupted again before the Bombers play their first match of 2014 in Melbourne on Friday night.

Since Tania Hird, in an interview with ABC television, expanded on her criticism of the AFL’s handling of her husband, it has been suggested that the coach – currently serving a 12-month ban - could be sacked.

Essendon chairman Paul Little has confirmed that the club hierarchy is meeting on Friday about developments – specifically Tania Hird’s comments on television. 

He said the events of the past 24 hours had “disappointed” the Bombers.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire has predicted that “I don't think we'll see James Hird coach Essendon again.”

“That would be extraordinary,” Burnside said on Friday morning, of the proposition that Hird could be sacked over the latest criticism tabled publicly by his wife.

“And I’m sure that Essendon and Paul Little are much more intelligent than to do something like that because that would raise pretty obvious employment issues, apart from anything else.

“What is interesting about this, though, is whether the AFL’s got a role in this.

“I mean, poor old AFL. You know, here is the big bully now behaving a bit like a sook. And if they’re troubled by things that Hird’s wife says, well that’s too bad for them. And I really do hope that we don’t discover at some time that the AFL has been leaning on Essendon to silence Tania Hird by making threats to sack James. That would be outrageous.”

While Hird has effectively been gagged by the AFL – he agreed to a non-disparagement clause when he signed deeds of settlement with the league last year that formalised his suspension – Burnside said this did not extend to his wife.

Fairfax Media detailed earlier this week how Essendon had previously asked Hird to silence his media and legal advisers – specifically Steven Amendola and Ian Hanke - who have not held back in criticising the AFL.

It’s understood these requests were put directly to Hird, by Essendon chairman Paul Little, and that Hird refused on the spot.

The AFL was incensed by commentary from Amendola and Burnside last month after outgoing CEO Andrew Demetriou announced the league’s Commission was to review how the code's administration dealt with the Essendon doping probe.

Burnside told Fairfax Media at the time: "I would not be cynical about how meaningful it would be. I would be confident that it will not be meaningful at all."

Amendola, an industrial law expert who has acted for Hird since April and remains engaged by the coach, said at the time that Demetriou, AFL Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick, and the AFL’s chief integrity officer, Brett Clothier, should have all resigned or been removed over the events of last year.

"The way I see what happened [last year] is that the AFL were interested in brand protection, not in having a transparent investigation and inquiry," Amendola told Fairfax Media four weeks ago.

"I think the idea of having an internal review about the bleeding obvious - and the bleeding obvious is that the AFL Commission should not have been the investigator, the prosecutor, judge and jury - just demonstrates the level of contempt that the AFL has for the public.”

Speaking on ABC radio on Friday morning, Burnside said Tania Hird was entitled to freely express her views on the case.

“The AFL had a pretty high-powered legal team and they took two days to thrash out the terms of an agreement. And that agreement included a thing which said that James can’t disparage the AFL,” he said.

“Well, if they wanted to say James and his wife, or James and his wife and his kids, and James and his wife and his lawyers and their friends can’t say anything, they could have added that into the agreement and we would have all looked at it.

“But the simple fact is the agreement simply prevents him from saying anything against the AFL.”