A sense of proportion is a very useful quality in politics. In the case of Novak Djokovic, the Morrison government has lost that sense entirely.
Late Monday in the Federal Circuit Court, Judge Anthony Kelly quashed last week’s cancellation of the tennis star’s visa, done on his arrival in Australia to play in the Australian Open.
The judge read a minute, agreed to by both sides, which said Djokovic wasn’t given sufficient opportunity to respond at the border (the saga went through the early hours, when he couldn’t contact people).
With Djokovic’s court win, the government immediately faced an invidious choice – accept its humiliation or launch a fresh, hairy-chested offensive.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has the power to move, under his ministerial discretion, to cancel the now-restored visa.
On Monday night, a spokesman for Hawke said “the minister is currently considering the matter and the process remains ongoing”.
Surely, it would have been better for the government to just cut its losses at once. The speaker of Serbia’s parliament, Ivica Dacic, made some sense in saying “the process should have ended when the court ruled”.
Most Australians – in a highly vaccinated population – would struggle with the tennis star’s resistance to the jab. It seems perverse and irresponsible. Many would say he should not have been allowed to get on a plane to come to Australia, whether or not he had met the (unclear) technicalities of the medical exemption criteria.
All fair enough. But the government shenanigans after he was granted a visa and arrived at Melbourne airport blew the matter into a diplomatic incident, and the theatre of the absurd.
Some commentators argue the government calculated that throwing Djokovic out would be a political distraction from the horrors of the escalating Omicron crisis.
But really? Would people struggling with illness, the search for tests, and the disruption to employment and businesses, have their attention so readily diverted? Certainly not for more than an instant.
Looked at rationally, it is near impossible to understand why the government chose to get itself into this mess. Or why it left things hanging after the court decision.
It would be a stretch to argue Djokovic is a danger to public health. Earlier in the pandemic, the unvaccinated player might have been a COVID risk – that is, when we had more or less “suppressed” the virus. That’s hardly the case now, when the latest COVID wave is spreading – and being allowed by the authorities to spread – like wildfire.
The government may have wanted to use a tall poppy to reinforce that “tough-borders” message – you don’t get in if you don’t follow “the rules”, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
But the evidence given in Monday’s court case indicated Djokovic arrived thinking he had followed the rules. And it turns out the government got its comeuppance from the court for not abiding by procedural rules.
Kelly declared during the hearing, “The point I’m somewhat agitated about is what more could this man have done” to comply with the rules. Anyway, it defies common sense to believe Djokovic would have undertaken the trip unless he thought things were in order.
The federal and Victorian governments, Tennis Australia, Border Force and Djokovic himself all share responsibility for this inglorious episode, which has been laced with confusion.
Assuming Djokovic arrived on a sincere misapprehension, the sensible course would have been for the government to have found a way through rather than resorting to its heavy handedness at the border. This has made Australia look like hicksville, and been bad for the reputation of the Australian Open.
Serbia mightn’t be France, but its president can also pack a punch when national pride is at stake.
Turning Serbia’s national hero into Australia’s national villain has been harder than the government thought. It’s become an own goal for the government’s latest “operation sovereign borders” chapter.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra