By sports editor Russell Bennett
Three hugely influential figures in the local footy community have thrown their support behind a push to make the Gippsland region an autonomous zone.
Former AFL Gippsland commission chair John Schelling; former acting region general manager and former chair of the Gippsland League, Greg Maidment; and former commissioner John White have all expressed serious concerns about the management of football in the region.
All three men were part of the six-member commission panel given its marching orders at the Morwell Bowls Club back in May as AFL Gippsland’s financial struggles were revealed.
At this stage, six of Gippsland’s eight senior leagues have opted not to use the services of the Regional Administration Centre (RAC), based out of Morwell. Only the Gippsland League and the West Gippsland Football Netball Competition remain, and the Gazette understands that serious questions are being asked from people involved with both of those about their future in the region.
Some have even discussed the possibility of the Gippsland League board partnering with the WGFNC.
A series of town hall-style meetings are currently being held across the region, run by an external body employed by AFL Victoria to gauge the thoughts of the community on the state of football and netball in the area.
The Gazette understands that, at most, a dozen people attended the meeting in Bairnsdale, while there were less than 30 at another such meeting in Bunyip.
The meetings revolve around the Gippsland 2025 Strategic Plan – or ‘G25’ – which was announced back in July.
According to correspondence sent to the Gazette, the plan was created “with a view to looking beyond regional commission boundaries and serving as a vision piece for Gippsland and bordering commissions”.
But there seems real doubt as to the effectiveness of yet another review into Gippsland football and netball.
White told the Gazette the ‘town hall meetings’ had particularly poor, or no advertising in the lead-up; the appetite for the meetings from the community wasn’t there in the first place; and of those invited to put in a response, only around 40 per cent did.
“The mistrust with the AFL at the moment is extremely high,” he said.
“The autonomous zone is clearly something that should be considered.
“I feel like they’re going to make a decision that doesn’t capture the thoughts of the broader community.
“There is a mood for a significant shift in the relationship between Gippsland leagues and clubs, and the AFL in all its formats.
“The AFL may be the custodian of the game, but that does not give it the right to ‘dictate’ to clubs. Such a dictatorial attitude will drive a further wedge between the parties – as it should.
“Proposed in a recent meeting was the initiative of Gippsland being established as an autonomous zone called ‘Gippsland Football Netball Pty Ltd’.
“The structure is one that would embrace the Gippsland region and, whilst it recognises the custodians of the game, it is done at arms’ length with no interference. The intent would be to have the management controlled by the leagues on behalf of the clubs.”
White said there was a feeling in the local football and netball community that “the AFL will do what it wants, not what the communities want”.
“Communities in all of the smaller towns depend on the football and netball environment as a principal of success for the town,” he said.
“Take away football – take away the town.
“My views are expressed following hundreds of discussions with the great people of this great region – Gippsland.”
Interim head of AFL Gippsland Richard Black and commercial and operations manager Don Harley were asked the following questions by the Gazette for this story, which they opted not to answer.
1: There have been a number of reviews in the region over recent years. Exactly what makes you confident that G25 will lead to positive outcomes for the region, its clubs, and its people?
2: With a commission made up of people from outside the Gippsland region, how can local football and netball people be confident that informed decisions will be made in their best interests?
3: For those in the region who’re unfamiliar with your backgrounds, what do you bring to Gippsland specifically as the two senior managers of AFL Gippsland?
4: When six of the eight senior football/netball leagues in Gippsland aren’t directly part of the RAC, what does that say about its effectiveness?
5: How did AFL Gippsland promote or advertise the recent ‘town hall’ meetings for local communities to provide their input?
Instead, Black issued the following response: “AFL Gippsland is working through a series of consultations with all stakeholder leagues and clubs through an independent third party to ensure the ongoing sustainability and growth of country football. AFL Gippsland looks forward to sharing the outcomes with the broader Gippsland football community at the appropriate time”.