The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, says Novak Djokovic was deported because he tried to breach entry rules at the border, even though the immigration minister did not dispute the tennis star’s belief he had a valid medical exemption.
The Serbian tennis player boarded an Emirates flight from Melbourne to Dubai on Sunday night, hours after the full federal court upheld the minister’s decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa.
Morrison said on Monday the world men’s No 1 had failed to comply with “the rules”, that to enter Australia that “you either have to be vaccinated or you have to have a valid medical exemption and show evidence of it”.
“It’s as simple as that,” the prime minister told 2GB radio. “This is about someone who sought to come to Australia and not comply with the entry rules at our border. That’s what this is about.”
The health minister, Greg Hunt, also argued on Monday that Djokovic’s medical exemption “wasn’t valid”.
But the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, did not make alleged non-compliance with entry rules a central plank of his reasons for cancelling Djokovic’s visa a second time on Friday.
In his formal decision, Hawke said he assumed that Djokovic “entered Australia consistently” with Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) documents, even though the minister noted there was a dispute about this in the earlier court proceedings.
“For present purposes, I will assume that Mr Djokovic’s position is correct rather than seeking to get to the bottom of this here,” Hawke wrote.
Hawke said he weighed that up as a factor against cancelling the visa, but added: “That I am assuming he currently has a medical reason not to be vaccinated does not ultimately affect my reasoning on health and good order as explained below.”
The immigration minister also noted Djokovic – who cited a recent Covid infection as a reason for not being vaccinated – had received a supportive letter from Tennis Australia.
“I have taken into account that upon receipt of this letter, Mr Djokovic considered that he had a valid medical exemption to come to Australia, and that he would therefore be entitled to remain in Australia.”
Hawke’s overarching argument for cancelling the visa was that Djokovic’s presence in Australia “may pose a health risk to the Australian community” because it “may foster anti-vaccination sentiment”.
The immigration minister used powers under section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel Djokovic’s visa “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so”.
Morrison denied on Monday that the decision to cancel the visa had the potential to encourage anti-vaccination elements even more.
“Well, I don’t believe so, and because we’ve made it very clear that the rules are the rules,” he said.
Morrison also denied a double standard, given that several Coalition politicians had been spreading anti-vaccination messages. The prime minister said 2GB host Ben Fordham was “conflating two different issues”.
“In Australia, if you’re an Australian, you’re a citizen, you’re resident and you’re a citizen, you can be here and you can express your views,” Morrison said.
Morrison left open the possibility that Djokovic might be allowed back into Australia at some point over the next three years.
Asked what Djokovic would have to do to be allowed back into Australia next year, Morrison said: “I’m not going to sort of precondition any of that or say anything that would not enable the minister to make the various calls they have to make. I mean, it does go over a three-year period, but there is the opportunity for them to return in the right circumstances and that would be considered at the time.”
The rules say that a person who receives an adverse decision will not be able to be granted a visa for a period of three years, except in certain circumstances including compelling circumstances that affect the interests of Australia.
Labor’s home affairs and immigration spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, welcomed the court’s decision to uphold Hawke’s cancellation of the visa, but said the Australian government “never should have granted Novak Djokovic that visa in the first place”.
“This is a series of unforced errors on Mr Morrison’s part, and it’s a mess on our borders,” Keneally told ABC TV.
“We are now an international embarrassment, thanks to Mr Morrison’s bungles.”
Keneally said some of Morrison’s own MPs and senators have been discouraging vaccination “for months”.
“Mr Morrison cannot pretend that he is a wolf, tough on Novak Djokovic, but a lamb in front of his own party room, unwilling to tell people like George Christensen to pull their head in,” she said.
Djokovic arrived in Australia on the evening of 5 January. He believed that a visa granted on 18 November and a medical exemption approved by Tennis Australia and a Victorian government independent expert panel would be sufficient to enter Australia.
Djokovic’s visa was first cancelled by the Australian Border Force hours after he arrived at Melbourne airport and he was taken to a detention hotel.
Last Monday a federal circuit court judge restored Djokovic’s visa, concluding it was unreasonable for the ABF to renege on a deal to give him more time at the airport to address the exemption issue.
Hawke then cancelled Djokovic’s visa on Friday on the basis Djokovic’s presence in Australia might risk “civil unrest” as he is a “talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”. On Sunday, chief justice James Allsop announced the court unanimously dismissed Djokovic’s application to overturn the cancellation, with costs to be paid by the tennis star.
Allsop explained the decision of the court did not reflect on “the merits or wisdom of the decision” but rather whether it was so irrational as to be unlawful.
In a statement on Sunday, Djokovic said he was “extremely disappointed” with the ruling, but said he respected it and would “cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country”.