SYDNEY, Australia — Novak Djokovic received the bad news on Thursday at 7:42 a.m. His entry visa into Australia was canceled and he was being detained, despite his arrival with a medical exemption from the country’s vaccine mandate for international visitors.
At 8:56 a.m., Prime Minister Scott Morrison jumped on Twitter to announce the tennis superstar’s comeuppance.
“Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders,” Mr. Morrison wrote. “No one is above these rules.”
The visa cancellation of a Covid vaccine opponent must have seemed like a clear political winner at first. Australians respect mandates, including vaccinations and compulsory voting. With a May election approaching, Morrison was back to a tried and true tactic: appealing for voter support through tough border enforcement.
But now that Mr. Djokovic has been released and his visa restored — after a blistering hearing before a federal judge on Monday — Mr. Morrison’s eagerness to portray him as an arrogant violator of Australia’s egalitarian ideals has started to look like an unforced error.
A nation that has been occupied with a crisis in its economy and a shortage in Covid tests for weeks is now debating whether its government is competent and fair and asking questions about its top leader. The sudden turn has twisted Mr. Morrison’s conservative supporters in knots and angered critics who already see him as a smug opportunist who prefers performance to substance and struggles with taking responsibility.
The prime minister must now make a tough decision: to double down or to fold and let Mr. Djokovic attempt to win his 10th title at the Australian Open, which begins on Monday.
The law allows Australia’s immigration minister to deport Mr. Djokovic or any other visa holder for even the smallest of violations: a slight risk to public health, an incorrect statement on immigration forms or a perceived deficit of character. Alex Hawke, 44, an ambitious party loyalist who took on the immigration portfolio about a year ago, said Monday night that he was still considering whether to rescind the tennis star’s visa for a second time.
On Tuesday, immigration authorities stated that they were investigating whether Mr. Djokovic was charged with a crime after he allegedly falsely stated on an entry form he had not traveled internationally in 14 days prior to his flight from Spain through Dubai to Australia via Spain. (Social media showed him celebrating Christmas in Serbia.
Mr. Djokovic told officials that Tennis Australia had completed the form for his, but it wasn’t clear if that could save him.
His opponent in this case — Mr. Morrison — is a political combatant who came to power during the presidency of Donald J. Trump and relished their friendship. To allow Mr. Djokovic to remain would not be a matter of accepting legal defeat for the prime Minister, it would also be a matter of defying his past and his political inclinations.
When Mr. Morrison served as immigration minister in 2013 and 2014, he was responsible for a military-led campaign called Operation Sovereign Borders, which took a zero-tolerance approach to any asylum seeker trying to reach Australia’s shores by boat.
Thousands were detained or turned back, despite human rights activists condemning the inhumane approach to immigration. Many of those refugees remain in Australian custody in offshore detention centres. About two dozen are at the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where Mr. Djokovic was held until Monday’s hearing.
Advocates for immigrants made the connection immediately, with many of them camping out in front the hotel with signs reminding voters about the harsh policies Mr. Morrison favors.
Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said that Mr. Djokovic had accidentally shined “a much-needed spotlight on Australia’s cruel, inhumane system of mandatory detention.” She added that it had perhaps made the world and average Australians question Australia’s tendency to detain first and ask questions later.
That’s precisely the predilection that Monday’s hearing involving Mr. Djokovic confirmed. The judge found that the celebrity athlete believed that he had done everything possible to comply with the rules. He stated that it was the government officials that failed to act fairly and reasonable.
Mr. Djokovic was able to show documents that he had obtained a medical waiver from Tennis Australia, the tournament organizers. The exemption, which Mr. Djokovic claimed was due to a Covid infection he had last December, was approved by a doctor from Victoria and an independent panel.
As he was being questioned by border agents for hours, Mr. Djokovic repeatedly said that he would seek any additional information the government required later that morning. He could also call Tennis Australia’s organizers and agent.
The transcript of that airport interaction, shared by the court after Mr. Djokovic’s release, proved even more revealing than what the judge had paraphrased.
The document shows that shortly after midnight, the border officer who was interviewing Mr. Djokovic seemed conciliatory.
“We want to give you every opportunity to provide as much information as you can,” the official said.
A few hours later, after the agent left the room — presumably to talk to bosses — and returned, the tone had changed. Mr. Djokovic was informed that the process of cancelling his visa had begun.
The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia
“I just really don’t understand what is the reason you don’t allow me to enter your country,” he said. “Just I mean, I have been waiting four hours and I still fail to, to understand what’s the main reason — like — lack of what papers? Lack of what information do you need?”
Eventually, the officer agreed to let Mr. Djokovic have more time, to call his agent after 8 a.m. Then, around 7:30 a.m., the government “reneged” on that promise, as the judge, Anthony Kelly, put it.
Judge Kelly concluded that rules are rules and that the rules of procedure were not being followed.
Whether that will alter voters’ views of Mr. Morrison may depend on where the “Djokovic affair” goes next.
Sean Kelly, a former Labor Party adviser and the author of a new Morrison biography, “The Game,” said the prime minister had a habit of overdramatizing the trivial and being passive with bigger challenges.
Throughout the pandemic, he’s sought to push responsibility onto the states. It’s partly what led Mr. Djokovic, a complicated figure known for outbursts and the promotion of junk science, to look like a sympathetic victim. Mr. Morrison’s government provided mixed messages to Tennis Australia about whether vaccination exemptions were handled at the state or federal level, and Mr. Djokovic seemed to have done what he could, short of getting vaccinated, to follow along.
Kelly stated that it was difficult to see any political benefit in dragging out the drama when there is a close election.
“If, in the next few weeks, Australians have a sense of the pandemic running out of control,” he said, “that’s when an issue like the government choosing to make a show out of the Djokovic issue starts to play badly.”
Some of Mr. Morrison’s allies are nonetheless still calling for Djokovic to be deported, arguing that Australians have lined up for vaccines and endured quarantines, so he should too. The prime minister is also being warned by sometimes silent corners to resign.
John Alexander, a member of Mr. Morrison’s center-right Liberal Party and a former professional tennis player, broke ranks Monday night and said that it was in the “national interest” to let Mr. Djokovic stay.
The immigration minister’s “‘personal powers to cancel visas’ are designed to prevent criminals otherwise walking our streets, or to prevent a contagious person otherwise walking our streets,” he said in a statement. “They’re not designed to assist in dealing with a potential political problem of the day.”
Source: NY Times