Rarely can the treatment of a grand sporting figure by officialdom have caused such consternation. Novak Djokovic, the tennis World Number One, has always had a tendency to get under skin and constitution, creating a large following of admirers and detractors. But his current treatment by Australian authorities, and his subsequent detention as an unlawful arrival despite being granted a visa to participate in the Australian Open, had the hallmarks of oppression and incompetent vulgarity. In time, it may well also prove to have been another example of provincial opportunism and crass stupidity.
It all began with the thick cloud of doubt over whether the Serbian tennis star needed to show proof of vaccination or otherwise in entering Australia. The Australian Open had become the first grand slam tennis tournament to require mandatory vaccination for all athletes subject to exemptions. This was a position also taken by the Victorian government. What remained unclear was whether dispensations could be granted, and under what conditions.
Djokovic was always unwilling to reveal his vaccination status. His response to the pandemic has also been patchy, even cavalier. The Adria Tour in June 2020, created as a response to the cancellation of various sporting events, proved disastrous. Organised by the Novak Djokovic Foundation as a "charity tour to help the coronavirus victims", it saw players, spectators and officials contract COVID-19, including Djokovic himself, resulting in the abandonment of the tournament.
Along with other tennis players, his application to participate in the Australian tournament, assessed anonymously, was accepted, leading him to confirm his departure for Melbourne earlier this month. Two bodies were involved in conducting the review: Tennis Australia and an independent medical exemption review panel. The Victorian Department of Health confirmed that the exemptions had been granted to those with a "genuine medical condition".
The next part of the story is revealing about Australian officialdom. On arriving in Melbourne, Djokovic encountered the nastiness that has made the Australian Border Force famous in celluloid, social media and print. It was all good to have received an exemption from two bodies; but the ABF retained the discretion to ask for further particulars and revoke any visa at their discretion. The Commonwealth, after all, is the final arbiter as to who crosses the border.
A statement by the ABF, never paragons of thoroughness or justice, claimed that "Mr Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled." In the cobwebbed mind of bureaucratic reasoning, this could mean, and be, anything.
In the right royal mess that ensued, the Victorian government, on being asked by the federal government to supply evidence of Djokovic's exemption, declined to sponsor him. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, showing that exemptions are viewed differently depending on which authority in Australia provides them, was satisfied that the right decision had been made. In his particular reasoning, "Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant."
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews also stated that all arrivals in Australia had to "provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons". Absent that, Djokovic "won't be treated any different to anyone else and he'll be on the next plane home." Such words are rich coming from a government addicted to subverting the rule of law, convention and due process.
The view also went some way in making a mockery of the assessments by both Tennis Australia and the medical review board. As Australia Open director Paul McNamee explained to the ABC, "every player and support member fills in a form, visa 408, and everyone does that, you are guided through it by Tennis Australia, every step of the way, and then you get approval, that is the process."
McNamee stressed that Djokovic "was following the rules. You might be angry that he was given an exemption, but players need to have confidence that the rules they abide by going are to be enforced, so if this is something to [do] with the vaccination in the exemption, for me that's not fair."
The legal challenge by Djokovic makes various assertions. The player received, the defence argues, a temporary activity class visa on November 18. Djokovic had tested positive to a PCR test on December 16 and was subsequently granted the exemption. It was then claimed that the Home Affairs Department had sent a note on January 1 informing him that he had met "the requirements for a quarantine-free arrival into Australia".
The submission is in stark contrast to correspondence from the Health Department and the Commonwealth. The former's First Assistant Secretary Lisa Schofield had informed Tennis Australia Chief Executive Craig Tilley that, "People who have previously had COVID-19 and not received a vaccine are not considered fully vaccinated." Health Minister Greg Hunt, on following up Schofield's observations, also confirmed that those who had contracted COVID-19 "within six months and seek to enter Australia from overseas, and have not received two doses of a Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA)-approved or TGA-recognised vaccine … are not considered fully vaccinated."