Scott Morrison’s stance on Novak Djokovic and the Australian Open – public health strategy or election campaigning?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval rating has dropped substantially from 65% in February last year, to 48% in the final poll of the year. Discontent over the allocation of taxpayer funded grants and poor vaccination rollout efforts, known as the ‘strollout’, were catalysts of this decline.

In August, the rise of the highly infectious Delta variant jeopardised the validity of Australia’s original zero-Covid strategy, and as public discontent grew, Morrison’s Liberal government was accused of utilising illiberal strategies. This led to a policy u-turn, with Morrison recognising that his hard-line approach was no longer a “sustainable way to live”. The government moved towards a less restrictive approach, and cases were allowed to rise. This shift coincided with the spread of the Omicron variant, leading Australia to enter 2022 with record-breaking numbers of cases. As a result, travelling to Australia is still carefully restricted – foreign visitors must be granted a special visa and provide proof of vaccination or a valid reason for exemption to avoid quarantine.

It was then troubling to many Australians, particularly Melbournians, who have endured six lockdowns, that an exemption for the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic – a healthy athlete and vaccine sceptic – was approved on the grounds that he had been infected last month. This allowed the unvaccinated sportsman to travel to Melbourne to compete for his tenth Australian Open title. According to Tennis Australia, his exemption was granted by two independent medical panels and approved by the state of Victoria. Shortly after the story first reached the headlines, sparking waves of outrage, Morrison seized the opportunity to warn, publicly and authoritatively, that Djokovic would be “on the next flight home” if he could not provide sufficient evidence to back his exemption.

Upon his arrival in Melbourne, Djokovic was stopped and interrogated. Border authorities then requested the state of Victoria formally back his visa application. In response, Victorian Sports Minister Jaala Pulford wrote: “Visa approvals are a matter for the Federal Government, and medical exemptions are a matter for doctors”. Djokovic’s visa was promptly cancelled, and within moments Morrison used Twitter to announce: ‘Mr Djokovic’s visa has been cancelled. Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders’. Morrison appeared confident that his intervention would result in Djokovic’s deportation, and in much needed positive press regarding his handling of the pandemic but the outcome of his strategy is still uncertain.

This is not the first time we have seen political leaders invoking the name of celebrities for political gain, and it’s unlikely to be the last. David Cameron’s public remarks about Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs come to mind here. For politicians, just stating the name of a media personality can sometimes be a useful way of directing media attention toward a topic that serves their own agenda. In Morrison’s defence, it is worth noting that a tough approach to border control is no new thing in Australia. The country is fiercely protective of its border security, has some of the most stringent immigration checks in the world, and has a history of public spats with high profile figures accused of flouting its rules.

In 2015, then Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, threatened to have the pet dogs of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp euthanised on the grounds that they had entered the country on a private jet, without undergoing mandatory rabies quarantine.
The recent scuffles between the Australian government and Djokovic could be compared to a tennis match, a rally of shots, with different strategies, fired from both sides. An appeal hearing in the Federal Circuit Court ruled in favour of the Serb last week, concluding that Djokovic had not breached the rules, and instead found the conduct of border forces ‘unreasonable’, going so far as to charge the government for pricey legal fees.

At this point, the odds shifted towards the possibility of Djokovic competing in the Australian Open – this ruling was a setback for the government, fiercely criticised for being overzealous and opportunistic in its decision to deny Djokovic entry to Australia. The Australian Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, referred to Morrison’s handling of the situation as the “Grand Slam of pandemic failures”. However, over the last few days, as it emerged that Djokovic had neglected to mention a recent trip to Spain on his Visa application, and attended a series of events after testing positive for Covid, Morrison’s actions once again appeared sensible and consistent with his government’s approach to managing the virus.

In a legal tiebreaker, Home Secretary Alex Hawke decided to use his power to cancel Djokovic’s visa for a second time, and today public opinion seems to be behind Morrison and his government After a dramatic two weeks, during which it seemed at times that the incumbent Australian PM had overstepped and left himself open to serious criticism, he now appears to have read the mood of the people and acted both accordingly and decisively.