Over the past week, the number of COVID cases in Australia has skyrocketed, with an additional 750,000 new confirmed cases and likely many more unreported thanks to shortages and testing delays. The healthcare system is overwhelmed, the economy is faltering and voids are starting to appear on supermarket shelves. Much of the blame should be directed at the federal Liberal government of Scott Morrison.
Despite this, the news has been dominated by Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic. After obtaining a waiver from vaccination requirements and a visa to compete in the Australian Open, authorities canceled his visa early last week. Then he successfully appealed the quashing, before Immigration Minister Alex Hawke stepped in on Friday to use his special ministerial powers to quash it again. Although Djokovic is appealing the decision, it seems likely that he will be deported and therefore automatically banned from returning to Australia for three years.
It’s true that Djokovic blatantly flouted public health guidelines in Europe late last year by refusing to self-isolate after returning a positive test. It’s also true that he’s a self-centered anti-vaxxer with delusions of martyrdom. Yet Immigration Minister Hawke’s justification for revoking his visa is far from plausible. He claimed Djokovic’s presence would encourage anti-vaccines, pose a threat to public health and could spark “civil unrest”.
Anti-vaxxers are an isolated minority, and federal government neglect is the most pressing threat to public health. Seen in this context, the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa is a superficial political stunt. It is an attempt by the Morrison government to regain some credibility and authority in the face of an impending election and a health crisis for which it bears overwhelming responsibility.
When Djokovic’s visa was first revoked, authorities held him in the Park Hotel alongside refugees, some of whom have been imprisoned for nearly a decade. Djokovic’s complaints about this “dirty hotel” briefly drew international attention to Australia’s draconian immigration detention regime. Unsurprisingly, however, Djokovic remained silent on the fate of the men he was being held with.
It’s an indictment from international and local media that it took a sports star to draw attention to the conditions faced by refugees at the Park Hotel. These include maggot-infested food and facilities that accelerated the spread of COVID-19 among inmates late last year.
Scott Morrison has tried to link Australia’s response to COVID-19 to “strong border policies”. This is a cynical obfuscation, given the unmitigated spread of the virus in Australia. Indeed, over the past eight years, the government has spent $8.3 billion on the overseas detention system. In 2021 alone, it spent $818 million maintaining land-based detention facilities like the Park Hotel. Meanwhile, the government has refused to make rapid antigen tests available for free, insisting instead that we rely on the private market.
On the surface, Novak Djokovic is a perfect scapegoat. They are an arrogant anti-vaxxer, a band that has faced significant backlash from the general public. However, it is ridiculous to think that the presence of a stubborn Serb on the tennis court will make a difference to the unfolding of the pandemic in Australia.
Indeed, the government’s concern that Djokovic will be expelled suggests that the Liberals are eager to regain the initiative and salvage their credibility.
We do not know if the movement resonated. Unsurprisingly, 80% of respondents to an online poll organized by News Corp agreed with Djokovic’s expulsion. Meanwhile, a small sample opinion poll by Utting Research found just 50% agreed. Either way, Australians are facing much bigger problems than the tennis star’s presence. Djokovic may not be a victim, but he is a pawn in a political maneuver designed to distract from large-scale government failure.
As schadenfreude as we may feel about Djokovic’s fate, perhaps the worst element of this saga is the extent to which it legitimizes the Immigration Minister’s “godlike” personal visa cancellation powers. These are the same powers that Immigration Minister Hawke can still use to deport the Murugappan family of Tamil asylum seekers who lived in Biloela until 2018, before being detained on Christmas Island after the expiry of their visa.
In their latest appeal against Djokovic’s deportation, his lawyers will not be allowed to question the minister’s rationale for his decision. On the contrary, Djokovic’s lawyers will limit themselves to arguing that the minister acted irrationally. Most commentators believe this is unlikely to succeed. Until the outcome – which will be delivered by a special session of the Federal Circuit Court over the weekend – authorities have remanded him to the Park Hotel in Melbourne. Unlike Djokovic, the other men held at the Park Hotel will not have their cases resolved in a matter of days.
The left should respond to this saga not by aligning itself with the liberals but by denouncing this cynical political maneuver. Hawke claimed allowing Djokovic to stay would encourage Australians to ignore a positive COVID test and ignore isolation requirements. Meanwhile, the federal government has reduced those isolation requirements, ostensibly to fill emerging gaps in the supply chain. Faced with chronic shortages of rapid antigen tests and often week-long delays in PCR test results, the federal government has refused to step in to make testing free for everyone or bolster testing staff.
The government has decided to let COVID flow unchecked through Australia, and ordinary people should bear the brunt. The danger for Australians doesn’t come from Serbian tennis players with bad opinions – it’s entirely local.