How the ‘Djokovic affair’ returned to Australian Prime Minister Bite

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – Novak Djokovic received bad news on Thursday at 7:42 p.m. His entry visa to Australia was revoked and he was detained despite arriving with a medical exemption from the country’s vaccination mandate for international visitors.

At 8:56, Prime Minister Scott Morrison jumped on Twitter to announce the return of a tennis superstar.

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

At first, the abolition of visa celebrity visa celebrity must have seemed like a clear political winner. Australians respect mandates, from vaccinations to mandatory voting. Mr. Djokovic is not always a nice character. And with the May election, Mr Morrison returned to a proven tactic: to arouse voter support with an appeal for tough border enforcement.

But now that Mr. Djokovic had been released and his visa had been renewed – after a stormy hearing before a federal judge on Monday – Mr. Morrison’s desire to portray him as an arrogant violator of Australia’s egalitarian ideals began to seem like an unforeseen mistake.

The nation, busy in recent weeks with the crippling economic rise of Omicron infections and the lack of tests at Covid, is now discussing the justice and competence of its government and questioning the priorities of its top leader. The sudden turn has twisted Mr. Morrison’s conservative supporters and angry critics who already see him as a smug opportunist who prefers performance to substance and struggles to take responsibility.

The prime minister is now facing a difficult choice: whether to double or fold and let Mr Djokovic try to win his 10th title at the Australian Open, which starts on Monday.

The law allows the Australian Secretary of Immigration to deport Mr Djokovic or any other visa holder for even the slightest violation: a slight threat to public health, incorrect statements about immigration forms or a perceived lack of character. Alex Hawke, 44, an ambitious party loyalist who took over the immigration portfolio about a year ago, said Monday night that he was still considering canceling the tennis star’s visa a second time.

On Tuesday, immigration authorities said they were investigating whether Mr Djokovic could be charged with a crime for making it manifestly false on the entry form that he had not traveled 14 days before his flight from Spain to Australia via Dubai. (Social media seemed to show how he celebrated Christmas in his native Serbia.)

Mr Djokovic told government officials that Tennis Australia had filled out the form for him, but it was unclear if it could save him.

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

When serving as Minister of Immigration in 2013 and 2014, Mr Morrison was responsible for a military-led campaign called Operation Sovereign Borders, which opted for a zero-tolerance approach to any asylum seeker seeking access to Australian shores.

Thousands have been returned or detained, even as human rights activists have condemned what they called the inhuman approach to immigration. Many of these refugees are still in Australian custody in coastal detention centers. About two dozen are at the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where Mr Djokovic was held until Monday’s hearing.

The connection was immediately made by immigrant advocates, many of whom camped in front of the hotel with signs reminiscent of voters’ tough policies, which Mr Morrison favors.

Elaine Pearson, Australia’s director of Human Rights Watch, said Mr Djokovic had accidentally shone on “much-needed spotlight on Australia’s cruel, inhuman system of compulsory detention.” She added that this may have prompted the world and average Australians to question Australia’s tendency to hold back first and ask questions later.

That is exactly what Monday’s hearing on Mr Djokovic confirmed. The famous athlete believed that he had done everything he could to follow the rules, the judge ruled. They were government officials who, he said, had not acted fairly and reasonably.

Mr Djokovic had documents proving that he had obtained a medical exemption from Tennis Australia, the tournament’s organizers. The exception, based on what Mr Djokovic said was a Covid infection he had in December, was approved by a doctor and an independent commission from the state of Victoria, where the Open takes place.

When Mr. Djokovic was interrogated by border agents for hours, Mr. Djokovic repeatedly offered to look for anything else the government needed later that morning when he could call his agent and the organizers of Tennis Australia.

The transcript of this interaction at the airport, shared by the court after Mr. Djokovic’s release, proved even more revealing than what the judge paraphrased.

Just after midnight, the document shows, a border official questioning Mr Djokovic sounded conciliatory.

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

A few hours later, as the agent left the room β€” probably to talk to the bosses β€” and returned, the tone changed. Mr Djokovic was informed that the process of revoking his visa had begun.

“I just don’t really understand why you’re not allowing me to enter your country,” he said. “I just want to say I waited four hours and still can’t understand what the main reason is – like – lack of what papers?” Do you miss what information you need? “

In the end, the officer agreed to give Mr. Djokovic more time to call his agent after 8:00. Then, around 7:30 a.m., the government “broke that promise,” Judge Anthony Kelly said.

If the rules are rules, Judge Kelly concluded, the Rules of Procedure were not followed.

Whether this will change voters’ views on Mr Morrison may depend on where the “Djokovic affair” goes.

Sean Kelly, a former Labor adviser and author of Morrison’s new biography “The Game,” said the prime minister was in the habit of dramatizing trivial things too much and being passive on bigger challenges.

During the pandemic, he tried to transfer responsibility to the states. It is partly what led Mr Djokovic, a complicated figure known for explosions and the promotion of marriage science, to make him look more like a political victim. Mr Morrison’s government has provided Tennis Australia with mixed reports on whether vaccination exemptions have been dealt with at the state or federal level, and Mr Djokovic seems to have done what he could, other than vaccination, to follow suit.

Mr Kelly said it was difficult to see the political contribution to prolonging the drama because of what appeared to be a tight election.

“If in the next few weeks, Australians feel that the pandemic will spiral out of control,” he said, “then a problem like the government that decided to make the show out of Djokovic’s affair will start to play badly.”

However, some of Mr Morrison’s allies are still calling for the deportation of Djokovic, arguing that the Australians have lined up for vaccines and have survived quarantines, so he should. But the prime minister is also facing warnings from the usually quiet corners to resign.

John Alexander, a member of Mr Morrison’s center-right Liberal Party and a former professional tennis player, broke through on Monday night, saying 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 from otherwise walking on our streets or to prevent a contagious person from otherwise walking on our streets, “he said in a statement. “They are not designed to help solve a potential political problem today.”

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