Roar writer Conor Walsh on the Australian government’s mishandling of Novak Djokovic’s entry into the country.
The botched attempt of revoking, Novak Djokovic’s, Serbian tennis star, visa by the Australian Government has left the country, once lauded for its effective measures for controlling the spread of Covid-19, embarrassed on the world stage.
The question on everyone’s lips is how Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and his government didn’t foresee such a fiasco. Few would have expected such a schoolboy error from a politician as experienced as Mr Morrison, who was first elected as an MP back in 2007. Alex Hawke, Minister for Immigration, has similar questions to answer since he was tasked with overseeing the visa situation. The Australian Open, an annual event, did not creep up on this government by surprise so why were the difficulties posed by the impending arrival of one of the world’s most famous sportspeople not pre-empted?
Djokovic was already viewed as one of the most prominent anti-vaxxers in the world. However, the sports star has never totally denounced the use of vaccines. He instead said that while he was “opposed to vaccination”, he wanted “an option to choose what’s best for [his] body”, but would keep an “open mind”. Despite this, many in the anti-vaccination community have latched onto him as being a hero for their cause. The BBC has reported that in Telegram groups promoting anti-vax theories, he’s been portrayed as a hero and an icon of freedom of choice.
This strengthens Minister Hawke’s arguments for cancelling Djokovic’s visa on the basis that his presence in Australia could lead to “civil unrest” and that he is a “talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”. Chief Justice James Allsop, one of three judges presiding over Mr Djokovic’s appeal against the decision by the Minister to revoke his visa, said that the court upheld the Minister’s decision on the basis that there was “nothing irrational or legally unreasonable” in the public policy argument advanced by Mr Hawke.
However, this could lead one to question how fair such a ruling is given that Djokovic has never openly supported anti-vaccination sentiment. Indeed, the judge’s reasoning cannot be said to be of the nature of a glowing report card for Hawke’s ministerial actions.
Additionally, eyes were on Djokovic’s movements following his positive Covid-19 test result in mid-December when he attended an interview and photoshoot for L’Equipe knowing that he had the virus.
Despite this, it is Prime Minister Morrison who has come under most fire for the way his country has handled this scandal, with Labour opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, saying “this has been a great embarrassment for Australia, [and] it’s one that could have been avoided.”
The Victorian state government granted Djokovic a visa and an exemption to come to Australia, with Tennis Australia confirming on January 4 that a medical exemption had been “granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts”. Therefore, it was surprising to learn that border officials cancelled Mr Djokovic’s visa on January 6, having detained him since his arrival a day previously, given that he had been granted such an exemption.
A person whose visa is cancelled under Section 133C(3) of Australia’s Migration Act 1958 is subject to a three-year ban from returning to Australia. This places Djokovic’s hopes of obtaining further Australian Open titles, of which he has already won nine, in grave doubt. Along with this, the tennis star certainly hasn’t come out of the saga looking squeaky clean himself. It emerged during the court proceedings that his agent had made an error reporting how many countries he had been to in the two weeks prior to his arrival, as he was forced to confirm his unvaccinated status.
The reasons for this decision, however, become increasingly apparent in knowing that anger took root amongst Australians, who have been subjected to some of the world’s harshest restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic, at seeing an unvaccinated celebrity being allowed to enter their country. The Prime Minister tweeted, “rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules”.
Losing the opening set of the match in a court of law was a massive setback for the national government who also had to contend with the criticism regarding the discrepancies between the reasoning of state governments and the national border enforcement agency over who should be granted a visa.
This was compounded by the indefensible mixed messaging coming from top politicians involved. Mr Morrison said the tennis star was deported because he attempted to breach rules at the border but his Immigration Minister stated he was “assuming [Djokovic] has a valid medical reason not to be vaccinated”, forcing the public to question whether members of the same national government are even on the same page.
It’s anybody’s guess as to who is in charge and what kind of medical exemption is necessary to avoid the vaccination requirement. This lack of clarity makes the government appear grossly incompetent.
Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, has said of Australia, “they think that this harassment humiliated Djokovic, but they actually humiliated themselves”. It is hard to disagree with this. The argument advanced by Minister Hawke, that Djokovic’s presence would likely promote civil unrest, appears to have been greatly undermined by the deportation controversy. Djokovic’s anti-vaccination views have been given more airtime as a result of the attempts to remove him from Australia. His mere presence in the country would probably never have given them the same prominence. Hawke, Morrison and the rest of the government seem to have engaged in a campaign of self-destruction of their own goals through the actions they took.
All Morrison can hope for now is that the Open itself is an ace or else the deportation controversy may remain centre court for some time.