Novak Djokovic is a scapegoat. We just learned that the Australian federal government has canceled his visa and will deport him, in my opinion, to cover up its multiple failures to manage the Omicron wave of the COVID pandemic. The Australian media, especially the dominant Murdoch press, aligned with the government, has been on a campaign to muckrake against Djokovic and to incite anger against him for his alleged no-vax status. Public opinion, until recently split on whether Djokovic should be allowed to play in the Australian Open Tennis Tournament, has now largely been turned against him.
How did it come to this?
In December of last year Djokovic applied for and obtained, a visa to come to Australia to play in the Australian Open. He was exempted from the requirement for a Covid vaccination because he had recently tested positive for Covid. When members of the public and the media raised concerns regarding the signal that this sent regarding the vaccination effort, the Prime Minister stated publicly that a vaccine exemption and his entry into Australia were matters for the State government of Victoria where the Australian Open is held and Tennis Australia, the official organizer.
On arriving in Australia in the early hours of the morning, one day after the Prime Minister’s comments, he was detained by the Border Police and his visa was canceled on the grounds that he was not vaccinated. At that hour of day, he was not able to contact Tennis Australia nor was he given sufficient time to prepare an appeal against this decision. He was escorted straight out of the airport and put in an immigration detention venue, the Park Hotel, which for years has been accommodating asylum seekers. Against the odds, Djokovic managed to force an appeal, which he won on the grounds of procedural unfairness and he was allowed to leave custody to prepare for his coming tennis matches.
The Federal government stalled for time, most likely unsure of what to do next. It took five days for the Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke to respond: it would no longer deport Djokovic for being unvaccinated, but “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so” adding that, “The Morrison Government is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Australia’s deportation law confers powers that “effectively allow[s] the minister to play God with someone’s life” according to immigration lawyer Greg Barnes. As a result, the judges have very limited scope to review the government’s decision. The government only needs to argue to the court that its action is “reasonable, rationally or legally”. The counter-argument made by Djokovic’s lawyers is that the minister has given “no consideration whatsoever to what effect [Djokovic’s presence at the Australian Open] may have on anti-vax sentiment and indeed on public order [and] that seems patently irrational.” If Djokovic’s application to overturn the decision is dismissed, he also faces a three-year ban from being granted another visa.
The arguments made by Djokovic’s lawyers to be able to remain in Australia appear supported by the facts. Until the Omicron wave, Australia’s state governments managed to keep a firm lid on the spread of COVID, giving themselves time to vaccinate the population. Despite frequent and noisy protests from small but belligerent groups of no-vaxers, currently more than 92% of Australians over the age of sixteen are double vaccinated against COVID. When the Omicron wave struck, however, the right-leaning Federal government and the state government of New South Wales (NSW), which is also right-leaning and holds the highest population of all seven of Australia’s states, opted to abolish most restrictions on mask wearing and public assembly. Interstate barriers, which had successfully checked the spread of the disease, came down nearly everywhere.
The result has been an unmitigated disaster. Case numbers have risen from almost negligible numbers compared to other countries, to over 1.7 million in a country of 25 million inhabitants. Hospital systems, particularly in NSW, are now on the point of collapse, public testing and tracing has all but been abandoned, and there is a dire shortage of Rapid Antigen Tests. Infection rates are so high that massive numbers of transport workers have had to be furloughed, leading to supermarket shelves being stripped bare of food and other basic items. Most if not all, of the blame for this predicament can be laid squarely at the feet of the Federal government, which throughout has taken a laissez faire approach to planning and preparation, leaving the state governments to fend for, and compete amongst themselves.
It is easy to infer from the facts presented above that the entire Djokovic saga represents a diversion, not to mention a waste of political focus, when much graver matters await resolution.
So why is the Australian public putting up with this scapegoating of a private individual, and why does the government think it can get away with such a blatant political deception?
Australian governments have a history of scapegoating and victimizing individuals for political ends. Djokovic is sharing his detention in a hotel containing asylum seekers who have been in custody since 2012. Many of them were still children when they attempted the perilous sea crossing from Indonesia to Australia and were captured by Australia’s border forces. Hundreds of them were held in purpose-built detention centers that are little more than concentration camps, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards funded by the Australian government in third countries: Papua New Guinea and the island state of Nauru. The asylum seekers languishing in the immigrant detention hotel where Djokovic is currently being held have been there since at least 2019. They were taken there for the treatment of medical conditions, often caused by their very same detention. Many of them are still awaiting this medical attention.
The unmitigated cruelty of this system has been condemned by human rights groups the world over and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It has also enabled successive governments of Australia to earn electoral support by claiming they have been tough on “protecting our borders.” The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, presided over this very same system as minister for immigration between 2013-2014. Visitors to his office are proudly shown a trophy depicting a refugee boat bearing the caption: ‘I stopped these.’
The Djokovic controversy, if nothing else, has at least enabled local human rights groups, such as the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, to raise public attention to the plight of these asylum seekers, many of whom are undocumented and do not have the same legal options open to the well-funded Djokovic legal team. This fundamental disparity of opportunity highlights the arbitrary and unjust nature of the whole so-called ‘border protection’ process.
This brings us back to the original question re-framed: Why do so many Australian voters support governments that implement such cruel, iniquitous and discriminatory policies?
I think that this question can be answered in as many ways as there are countries that attract immigrants. But, in all of them there is a common element: fear.
In Australia’s case I can explain it this way: Australia was invaded by the British in 1788 who established a colony for the purposes of accommodating convicts, the flotsam and jetsam left behind by industrialization. Aboriginal sovereignty has never been recognized in law. Since then, this legacy, the continent’s geographic location and its small largely European original population have brewed a toxic fear of invasion or of being otherwise occupied by its Asian neighbors. Australian governments have consistently been able to exploit this underlying fear since Federation in 1901. And 2022 is an election year.
The outcome of the Djokovic debacle will be the same: fear will have won. Novak Djokovic is but the latest and most prominent sacrifice to this beast.
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