Professional Footballers Australia open to domestic transfer system or salary cap, not both

Professional Footballers Australia believes any introduction of a domestic transfer system (DTS) into Australian football must be collectively bargained, and that, "fundamentally," it cannot accept both a DTS and salary cap, PFA co-chief executive Beau Busch has told ESPN.

Though still allowed to conduct dealings on the international market, Australian clubs have been prohibited from bartering with each other for talent in a DTS since a 1994 Australian senate inquiry into corruption in the Australian system recommended its abolishment.

Since assuming the role in early 2020, Football Australia CEO James Johnson has made the re-introduction of the system, under a new regulatory framework, one of his signature policies; handing down a white paper on the topic in January 2021 and increasingly pushing the reform as a key part of the solution to a number of Australian football's woes.

Speaking to ESPN in February, Johnson said that after "a long consultation process," Football Australia was increasingly open to the possibility of introducing a DTS without the buy-in of all stakeholders.

This led to duelling statements from the PFA and Football Australia in which the union said that it hadn't been consulted on a DTS since early 2021 and the federation said that the PFA had opted out of the consultation process when they declined to answer "any of the questions posed in the white paper."

"I think we've always had a really effective relationship with the governing body," Busch told ESPN's Beyond The Lead podcast when asked for clarification on the current state of relations between the PFA and Football Australia. "That's been reflected since the inception of the A-Leagues and since the inception of Football Australia, we've been able to get deals done.

"What's really important when we have this discussion: The PFA, it's not about being averse to change or in favour of change. It's about progress and being able to demonstrate that whatever's being put on the table can progress the game and we're not just simply changing the game for the sake of changing it.

"We were invited to a consultation process back in early 2021. And we responded by outlining that, probably unsurprisingly to most people, we believe this is a matter for collective bargaining. It's not a matter of a simple consultation.

"Our very simple view is that ultimately this has been a matter that's always historically been collectively bargained around the transfer system.

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"So, around this whole sort of notion that we opted out, simply what we responded with was... that this is a fundamental matter that will have a significant impact on players and therefore it's a matter for collective bargaining. It's simply too important to be consigned solely to consultation."

Telling Beyond The Lead that the union had some since had face-to-face discussions with Football Australia as recently as last week, Busch was confident that any potential showdown surrounding a DTS being introduced sans buy-in from the PFA or the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) was unlikely.

"I would like to think that it would be unlikely that Football Australia would impose that on the players without the agreement of them and also, importantly, the clubs," he said.

"That's certainly not the way that things have been done in the last 17 years. We've always found a way to sit down at a table and reach an agreement.

"A key part as to why it needs to be collectively bargained is we've also got a different dynamic now where we've got Football Australia separated out from the league as the regulator. Then we've got the clubs that are sitting down with us, administering the day to day operations of the league and also doing a collective bargaining agreement.

"So what we don't want to see is the players having two restraints imposed on them: a salary cap and a transfer system.

"And whatever system comes in, it needs to be aligned to the game's objectives and what we want the professional game to achieve. It would certainly be counterproductive to impose a transfer system against the will of the players and against the will of the clubs too. That's not going to achieve anyone's objectives.

"So I'd like to think [imposition is] pretty unlikely. If that was to happen, we'd certainly look at our options around that. But again, I think that's a pretty unlikely outcome."

As alluded to by Busch, the presence of the A-Leagues' salary cap looms as a significant factor in any attempts to bring in a DTS.

Though increasingly willing to negotiate various exceptions for long-tenured and young players, amongst others, within it, APL clubs see the cap as an important regulator on spending in a time of economic hardship.

Johnson believes that a DTS and cap can co-exist, but describes the latter's presence as not being best practice and would like to see "serious consideration" to the current system.

The PFA, meanwhile, see attempts to have a DTS and cap co-exist as an anathema -- they can accept one, not both.

"We're not ideologically wedded to one over the other," explained Busch. "What's really important is that we need to assess the context in which the game finds itself at the moment. And there's a significant challenge around revenues. Also, we need to look at the cap in connection to the whole professional game too.

"One of the key parts in agreeing to the cap this year, when we look at women's football, for example, we were able to get the floor much higher and actually tie that for the first period of time. And that's been more investment into the women's game.

"The cap was important from a club perspective on the men's side to be able to have some level of cost control to allow for greater investment, hopefully in a youth league and also, importantly, into women's football and facilities.

"So, we need to assess that in context.

"Certainly, we're not going to agree to both, that's really fundamental. And we don't think that would be in the interest of the game.

"We're not ideologically wedded to one of the other but we've got a five-year CBA, we're seeing some important signs around that.

"It's not about change. It's about progress. That really needs to be demonstrated through whatever we're doing.

"We should be able to hold each other to account. If we're putting up ideas, or Football Australia are putting up ideas, or the clubs are putting up ideas we need to be able to assess them against facts and against research and evidence. That's fundamental here.

"It's not about being popular, it's about getting it right. That's really important for us. At times people may be challenged by our position on the transfer system.

"Certainly a lot of people are really connected, their understanding of football is based around the transfer system but as we sort of step back from that it's our job as we're representing the interest of players - but we've always acted in the best interest of the game - to be able to assess whether or not it's going to have a positive impact.

"And we're working through that at the moment to understand more about Football Australia's thinking on that."