Even for an Australian here in Melbourne, the Novak Djokovic saga has been bizarre, chaotic and Kafkaesque but also somehow uniquely Australian – with our Prime Minister leaping, Steve Irwin-like, into direct conflict with one of the world’s most high-profile vaccine objectors. And he lost.
Here’s a recapitulation of events for those unfamiliar with the internecine nature of Australian immigration law.
Last Wednesday, Djokovic arrived at Melbourne international airport, with a valid visa that had been granted months earlier and a written declaration by the Department of Home Affairs confirming that he met all requirements for quarantine-free arrival into Australia.
Djokovic also had a medical certificate from Tennis Australia – endorsed by an independent panel of the state government of Victoria – indicating that on the basis of having already recovered from Covid-19 weeks earlier, he was exempt from the Australian Open’s vaccination requirements.
As Judge Anthony Kelly would later remark, exasperated and apparently just as confused as everyone else, ‘What more could this man have done?’
But none of that prevented Djokovic from being held for ten hours at the airport by bumbling customs officers before being shunted into a reportedly flea-ridden Melbourne hotel doubling as immigration detention centre, where he remained for five days. It wasn’t until Monday that procedural sanity prevailed and a federal judge ordered that Djokovic be released within 30 minutes.
At time of writing, the federal government is still considering whether to invoke yet another bureaucratic loophole to deport Djokovic anyway.
This comes as Australians are returning to work, cranky and exhausted by another summer in the age of the coronavirus.
Omicron in Australia has been broadly mild, but has turbocharged our infection rate. Having been whipped into a frenzy of hypochondria by their leaders for the better part of two years, terrified Australians rushed out to get themselves tested, and the system did not cope well. Queues at most testing clinics were two or three hours at a minimum, and in most cases results didn’t come back for days.
Compounding the problem was the fact that Omicron hit as many Australians were planning to head off on holiday after another – it must be said – awful year down under. Complex and nakedly parochial state border arrangements have made travel within Australia perilous at the best of times – to say nothing of the headache of trying to actually leave the country for a holiday after two years in which has been basically illegal to do so. In any event, a negative PCR test is usually required, adding further to the backlog.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has fared particularly poorly out of all of this. His refusal to have the Commonwealth pay for at-home rapid antigen tests (a wildly popular item in Australia, for obvious reasons) was bizarre – not because of its economic merit, which was actually sound, but the weird spectacle of the Prime Minister refusing to throw money at a political problem after two years of plunging Australia into billions upon billions of debt.
Needless to say, bickering over the blistering shortage of tests and the political brouhaha about who should pay for them continued until well after New Year. Overall, it was the worst start to a political year – an election year, no less – by any incumbent government in living memory.
So when a brash, irreverent, oft-reviled and foreign vaccine objector turned up at Melbourne airport, Morrison opted for the coronavirus strong-man routine. ‘Rules are rules,’ he said, with little explanation of the precise rule Djokovic was breaking.
The political theatrics were no accident – for all his foibles, Morrison is a shrewd political messenger. He knows the island nation mentality that runs deep in the Australian psyche – that unspoken appreciation for the fact that our hitherto peaceful, happy, harmonious country is protected by ocean for miles around it.
He must have figured that canning Djokovic’s visa would be popular in a country in which reality TV shows about airport customs rate well in prime time, where the deputy prime minister once threatened to seize and euthanise dogs belonging to Johnny Depp for falling foul of animal quarantine rules, and where governments have, commendably, managed to see off the refugee crises that have swamped countries elsewhere.
But unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the ploy didn’t work. Australians aren’t stupid. They didn’t buy the idea of Djokovic as some nefarious foreign interloper. Instead, many of us see him as just another poor bastard drawn, through no fault of his own, into a nightmare we’ve been dealing with for years.
I’ve never watched a tennis match in my life, but I’ll be tuning into all of Novak’s games this year. So will many, many other Australians – including a not insignificant number who will find themselves, for the first time, cheering him on.
Because despite it all, we Australians love a larrikin. And the spectacle of a swashbuckling Serb showing up our Prime Minister is just the gallows humour we all needed.