Deporting Novak Djokovic Is a Political Stunt

While COVID-19 overwhelms Australia’s health system, Scott Morrison’s government has spent the week trying to deport tennis star Novak Djokovic. It’s a cynical attempt to distract from a major public health disaster.

Novak Djokovic attends a practice session ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 14, 2022. (MARTIN KEEP/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the last week, the COVID caseload in Australia has skyrocketed, with an additional 750,000 confirmed new cases and likely far more unreported thanks to test shortages and delays. The health system is overwhelmed, the economy is reeling, and gaps are beginning to appear on supermarket shelves. Much of the blame should be directed at Scott Morrison’s federal Liberal government.

Despite this, the news has been dominated by Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic. After being granted an exemption from vaccination requirements and a visa to compete in the Australian Open, the authorities cancelled his visa early last week. Then he successfully appealed the cancellation, before immigration minister Alex Hawke stepped in on Friday to use his special ministerial powers to cancel it once again. Although Djokovic is appealing the decision, it seems likely that he will be deported and, as a result, automatically barred from reentering Australia for three years.

It’s true that Djokovic blatantly flouted public health guidelines in Europe late last year by refusing to isolate after returning a positive test. It’s also true that he’s a self-absorbed anti-vaxxer with delusions of martyrdom. Yet immigration minister Hawke’s justification for revoking his visa is far from plausible. He has claimed that Djokovic’s presence will encourage anti-vaxxers, pose a threat to public health, and may spark “civil unrest.”

Anti-vaxxers are an isolated minority, and the federal government’s negligence is the more pressing threat to public health. Seen in this context, rescinding Djokovic’s visa is a shallow political stunt. It’s an attempt by the Morrison government to regain a degree of credibility and authority in the face of a looming election and a health crisis for which it bears overwhelming responsibility.

The Park Hotel Prison

When Djokovic’s visa was first cancelled, the authorities detained him in the Park Hotel alongside refugees, some of whom have been imprisoned for almost a decade. Djokovic’s complaints about this “dirty hotel” briefly drew an international spotlight to Australia’s draconian immigration detention regime. Unsurprisingly, however, Djokovic remained silent about the plight of the men with whom he was detained.

It’s an indictment of the international and local media that it took a sports star to draw attention to the conditions faced by the refugees in the Park Hotel. These include maggot-infested food and facilities that accelerated the spread of COVID-19 among detainees late last year.

Scott Morrison has attempted to link Australia’s COVID-19 response with “strong border policies.” This is a cynical obfuscation, given the unmitigated spread of the virus in Australia. Indeed, over the last eight years, the government has spent $8.3 billion on the offshore detention system. In 2021 alone, it spent $818 million maintaining onshore detention facilities like the Park Hotel. Meanwhile, the government has refused to make rapid antigen tests freely available, instead insisting that we rely on the private market.

A Scapegoat

On the surface, Novak Djokovic is a perfect scapegoat. He is an arrogant anti-vaxxer, a group that has faced significant backlash from the public at large. However, it’s ridiculous to think that the presence of one opinionated Serb on the tennis court will make any difference to how the pandemic unfolds in Australia.

Indeed, the government’s anxiety to see Djokovic deported suggests that the Liberals are anxious to regain the initiative and salvage their credibility.

It’s unclear whether the move has resonated. Unsurprisingly, 80 percent of respondents to an online opt-in poll run by News Corp agreed with deporting Djokovic. Meanwhile, an opinion survey with a small sample group by Utting Research found only 50 percent agreed. Whatever the case, Australians are facing far more serious issues than the tennis star’s presence. Djokovic may not be a victim — but he is a pawn in a political maneuver intended to distract from a governmental failure on a vast scale.

Personal Ministerial Power

However much schadenfreude we might 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 may still use to deport the Murugappan family of Tamil asylum seekers who lived in Biloela until 2018, before being detained on Christmas Island after their visas expired.

In their final appeal against Djokovic’s deportation, his lawyers won’t be allowed to question the minister’s justification for his decision. Rather, Djokovic’s lawyers will be restricted to arguing that the minister acted irrationally. Most commentators believe this is unlikely to succeed. Until the outcome — to be delivered by a special session of the Federal Circuit Court over the weekend — authorities have sent him back to the Park Hotel in Melbourne. Unlike Djokovic, the other men held in the Park Hotel will not have their cases resolved in a matter of days.

The Left should respond to this saga not by lining up with the Liberals but by exposing this cynical political maneuver. Hawke has claimed that allowing Djokovic to stay would encourage Australians to disregard a positive COVID test and ignore isolation requirements. Meanwhile, the federal government has slashed those very isolation requirements, ostensibly to plug emerging gaps in the supply chain. In the face of chronic shortages of rapid antigen tests and often weeklong delays for PCR test results, the federal government has refused to intervene to make tests free for everyone or bolster testing staff.

The government has decided to let COVID run unchecked through Australia, and that ordinary people should bear the burden. The danger to Australians does not come from Serbian tennis players with bad opinions — it’s entirely homegrown.