From the outset, prime minister Scott Morrison has treated Djokovic as a convenient vehicle for illustrating his country’s uncompromising border policy, and as the perfect distraction from the slide in his poll numbers, caused by his decision to let the omicron variant rip through the population. Within moments of Hawke’s announcement, Morrison sought to extract maximum political capital, declaring: “Our strong border protection policies have kept Australians safe.” But this latest twist smacks of more than mere opportunism. For Australia to expel the Serb, despite the judge’s admission that Djokovic had done everything possible to demonstrate his right to enter, risks making the country look downright vindictive.
To be sure, Djokovic has not helped his own cause at any stage of this saga. It was a serious PR mis-step for him to issue his own timeline of his movements before leaving Spain for Australia, which, far from bringing clarification, succeeded only in muddying the waters. To acknowledge that he had kept an interview with a French journalist despite being knowingly Covid-positive, and to concede that his agent had lied on his travel declaration on his behalf? It would be difficult to imagine a pair of confessions more likely to turn the Australian mood against him.
And yet these revelations were separate from the original charge that his claim of a prior Covid-19 infection in the past six months did not make him exempt from Australian vaccination rules. For Hawke to deport him as a potential lightning rod for anti-vaxxers gives the impression of an after-the-event decision, as if the government has been scrambling to find any cause to kick him out so that Morrison can triumph. This is no longer about the sanctity of Australia’s borders. It is about chasing votes.
Just look at the wording of Hawke’s statement. “The Morrison government is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said. What, by preventing the virus from infiltrating the country by deporting somebody who has already tested negative? The health arguments are so flimsy to be absurd. Djokovic’s presence here does not change Australia’s risk profile in the slightest.
Djokovic not perfect but episode reflects badly on Australia’s reputation
It is possible, of course, to see Djokovic’s own behaviour throughout this saga as arrogant. He has come across at times as a fool, particularly in his “error of judgment” in keeping his interview on December 18 with L’Equipe, and in delegating the completion of his travel forms to his agent, who provided false information. But Djokovic has not just been paraded in Australia as an idiot, but as a biohazard, an unvaccinated threat to everybody he meets. This unedifying case of Djokovic versus the state can be portrayed as the individual versus the system. And in pandemic Australia, the system tends to win.
Even in a country wedded to the strictest border controls, many can see the politicisation of the Djokovic episode for what it is. Janet Albrechtsen, writing in The Australian, a pro-Morrison newspaper, said: “This is the sign of a desperate, delaying government poring over polling and hunting for ex post facto reasons to discredit Djokovic.” Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister, argued: “This makes us look like some sort of corrupt colony where decisions are made on political whim, rather than a nation of laws governed by an impartial legal system.”
The consequences for Djokovic himself are stark. Having had his visa cancelled, he faces being banned from Australia for three years: a serious setback to his chances of lifting himself clear of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with a 21st major title, given his record of winning the Australian Open nine times. But the repercussions for Australia’s international image are equally grave. A nation that has portrayed itself in recent years as open, cosmopolitan and outward-looking has emerged from its targeting of Djokovic as insular, populist and paranoid.