The Politics    Monday, January 17, 2022

‘Health and good order’

By Rachel Withers

Image of fans taking a selfie with a photo of tennis star Novak Djokovic ahead of first round matches at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Image © Hamish Blair / AP Photo

Fans take a selfie with a photo of tennis star Novak Djokovic ahead of first round matches at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Image © Hamish Blair / AP Photo

If Novak Djokovic is “a talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”, what does that make George Christensen?

What was the Novak Djokovic deportation saga, which consumed so much of the government’s and the media’s attention over the past week, really about? It was surely not, as some originally believed, a masterful distraction cooked up by the government to divert from the summer’s COVID-19 testing and supply-chain breakdown – as if Australians, increasingly sick, anxious and struggling to access tests or even supermarket supplies, could forget their predicament. The episode has been disastrous for the government, making it appear even more chaotic and underprepared than ever, though it seems pleased with last night’s final outcome. But the government’s justification for the cancellation of the tennis star’s visa continues to shift, while remaining totally inconsistent with the government’s actions towards its own backbenchers and its stance towards the virus more broadly.

Friday’s visa cancellation, which was upheld in court yesterday, was made on “health and good order grounds”, with Immigration Minister Alex Hawke arguing that Djokovic presented a public health risk to Australia, and that, as a “talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”, his presence might provoke “civil unrest”. But if this is truly the case, why was Djokovic granted a visa in the first place? Why was it not raised by the government the first time it attempted to cancel his visa? And, most importantly, why has the government not done more to address the troubling talismans of anti-vax sentiment within its own ranks? Coalition MPs George Christensen, Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic, all of whom the government has been slow to censure, spent the weekend railing against COVID-19 measures and vaccines, with the latter even appearing on Serbian TV to defend the tennis star.

After being directly called out on such double standards on 2GB this morning, the prime minister insisted that Djokovic was different. “You’re conflating two different issues,” Scott Morrison said, insisting that citizens had a right to express their view, while foreigners had to abide by conditions – as if there were simply nothing he could do to call out those inciting civil unrest from within his own party’s ranks. Morrison continued to imply that the government’s response was about being strong on borders and upholding “the rules”, telling host Ben Fordham that the world number one was “wrong” to believe he had an exemption – though as Guardian Australia notes, this is at odds with his own government’s legal case, which did not dispute Djokovic’s belief he had an exemption.

Morrison has also tried to present this as being about respecting Australia’s work in keeping the virus at bay, as he attempts to work out exactly which message will best match the public mood. In a media statement following Friday’s cancellation, Morrison paid tribute to those efforts. “Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected,” it stated.

The appropriate way, of course, for the government to have protected those sacrifices, would have been to adequately prepare for this stage of the pandemic, to have made sure the nation had the required testing capacity, to have ordered enough rapid antigen tests, and to not have blindly pushed forward in the face of Omicron, for the sake of the economy, which the massive surge in cases has tanked anyway. Unfortunately, kicking out an unvaccinated tennis star, while refusing to do anything about the even stronger anti-vax views within its own ranks, is the best this government has to offer.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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