How the ‘Djokovic Affair’ Came Back to Bite Australia’s Prime Minister

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SYDNEY, Australia – Novak Djokovic received the bad news at 7:42 a.m. on Thursday. His entry visa to Australia was canceled and he was in detention, despite arriving with a medical exemption from the country’s vaccination mandate for international visitors.

At 8:56 a.m., Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to Twitter to announce the tennis superstar’s arrival.

“Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” Mr. Morrison wrote. “No one is above these rules.”

At first, the visa cancellation for a celebrity opponent of Covid vaccines must have looked like an obvious political winner. Australians are sticking to mandates, from vaccinations to compulsory voting. Mr. Djokovic is not always a likeable character. And with an election underway in May, Mr Morrison was reverting to a well-tried tactic: garnering voter support with calls for strict border enforcement.

But now that Mr Djokovic has been released and his visa reinstated – after a meteoric hearing before a federal judge on Monday – Mr Morrison’s eagerness to portray him as an arrogant rapist of Australia’s egalitarian ideals has begun to look like an unforced error.

A nation concerned in recent weeks over a wave of Omicron infections crippling the economy and a shortage of Covid tests is now debating the fairness and competence of its government and questioning the priorities of its top leader. The sudden turn has distorted Tory supporters of Mr Morrison and angered critics who already see him as a smug opportunist who prefers performance over substance and struggles to shoulder his responsibilities.

The Prime Minister now faces a difficult choice: to double down, or to fold and let Djokovic try to win his 10th title at the Australian Open, which begins on Monday.

The law allows the Australian Minister of Immigration to deport Mr. Djokovic or any other visa holder for the slightest violation: a slight risk to public health, an incorrect declaration on immigration forms or a perceived lack of character . Alex Hawke, 44, a loyal supporter of the ambitious party that took over the immigration portfolio about a year ago, said Monday evening he was still considering revoking the tennis star’s visa for the second time.

Immigration officials said on Tuesday they were investigating whether Mr Djokovic could be charged with a felony for apparently falsely stating on an entry form that he had not traveled abroad in the 14 days prior to its flight from Spain to Australia via Dubai. (Social media appeared to show him celebrating Christmas in his native Serbia.)

Mr Djokovic had told government officials that Tennis Australia filled out the form for him, but it was not clear if that could save him.

His opponent in this case – Mr. Morrison – is a political fighter who came to power during Donald J. Trump’s presidency and savored their friendship. Letting Mr. Djokovic stay in the country would not only mean accepting the legal defeat of the Prime Minister; it would also challenge one’s own past and political inclinations.

When Mr Morrison was Minister of Immigration in 2013 and 2014, he was responsible for an army-led campaign called Operation Sovereign Borders, which took a zero tolerance approach to any attempting asylum seekers. to reach the Australian coast by boat.

Thousands of people have been turned away or detained, even as human rights activists lamented what they called the inhumane approach to immigration. Many of these refugees are still being held in Australia in offshore detention centers. About two dozen are at the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where Mr Djokovic was held until Monday’s hearing.

That connection was made immediately by immigrant advocates, many of whom camped outside the hotel with signs reminding voters of the harsh policies Mr. Morrison promotes.

Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said Djokovic accidentally shone the spotlight on Australia’s cruel and inhumane system of mandatory detention. She added that this may have caused the world and average Australians to question Australia’s tendency to detain first and ask questions later.

This is precisely the predilection that Monday’s hearing involving Mr. Djokovic confirmed. The famous athlete believed he had done all he could to comply with the rules, the judge determined. It was the government officials who failed to act in a fair and reasonable manner, he said.

Mr Djokovic had documents proving he had obtained a medical exemption from Tennis Australia, the tournament organizers. The exemption, based on what Mr Djokovic said was a Covid infection he had in December, had been approved by a doctor and an independent panel in the state of Victoria, where the Open is being held.

As he was questioned for hours by border officials, Mr Djokovic repeatedly offered to search for anything the government needed later in the morning after he was able to call his agent and organizers from Tennis Australia.

The transcript of that interaction at the airport, shared by the court after Mr Djokovic’s release, turned out to be even more revealing than what the judge had paraphrased.

Just after midnight, the document shows, the border official who interviewed Mr. Djokovic appeared conciliatory.

“We want to give you every chance to provide as much information as possible,” the official said.

Hours later, after the agent left the room – presumably to speak to the bosses – and returned, the tone had changed. Mr. Djokovic has been informed that the process of canceling his visa has started.

“I really don’t understand why you don’t allow me to enter your country,” he said. “Just I mean, I’ve waited four hours and still can’t figure out what’s the main reason – like – the lack of what papers?” Lack of what information do you need? “

Finally, the officer agreed to give Mr. Djokovic more time, to call his agent after 8 am.

If the rules are the rules, Justice Kelly concluded, the rules of court were not followed.

Whether this will change voters’ opinion of Mr. Morrison will depend on the outcome of the “Djokovic case”.

Sean Kelly, former Labor Party adviser and author of a new Morrison biography, “The Game”, said the Prime Minister has a habit of dramatizing the trivial and being passive in the face of bigger challenges.

Throughout the pandemic, he has sought to place responsibility on states. This is in part what made Mr Djokovic, a complicated figure known for his explosions and promoting unwanted science, to look more like a political victim. Mr Morrison’s government sent mixed messages to Tennis Australia as to whether vaccination exemptions were managed at state or federal level, and Mr Djokovic appeared to have done what he could, aside from get vaccinated, to follow.

Mr Kelly said it was difficult to see any political advantage in dragging the drama out as what appears to be a close election looms.

“If in the next few weeks Australians feel like the pandemic is getting out of hand,” he said, “that’s when a problem like the government choosing to put on a show with the Djokovic problem is starting to play badly. “

Some of Mr Morrison’s allies nonetheless are still calling for Djokovic’s deportation, arguing that Australians have lined up for vaccines and have undergone quarantines, so he should too. But the prime minister also faces warnings from usually silent corners to withdraw.

John Alexander, a member of Mr Morrison’s center-right Liberal Party and former professional tennis player, broke ranks on Monday evening and said it was in the “national interest” to let Mr Djokovic stay.

The Immigration Minister’s “personal visa cancellation powers” are designed to prevent criminals from otherwise walking our streets, or to prevent a contagious person from otherwise walking our streets, “he said in a statement. “They are not designed to help deal with a potential political problem of the day.”

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