Novak Djokovic has become the whipping boy for Australia’s Covid fear and frustration

The controversy surrounding the entry to Australia of Novak Djokovic for the Australian Open has been strange and wild.

Since the Covid pandemic landed, Australia has positioned itself most extremely as a global outlier on border control.

This has taken us to stranger legal places than most; stranger even than the migration law mashups that Tampa and 9/11 delivered some 20 years ago.

What kind of democracy bans its own citizens from departing without specific approval by border control bureaucrats, never mind returning?

One human cost has been families, lovers and friends split across internal borders that nobody had much considered since we became a federation, instead of a cluster of British colonies, well over a century ago. And Australians have become strangely hardened to stories about so many people across our diaspora similarly forbidden to reunite, stranded everywhere from Bangladesh to Brussels and Beijing.

I thought we’d hit a new nadir in October when a Covid-positive man from New South Wales escaped quarantine detention in then Covid-zero Tasmania.

Most of my home state was sent into snap lockdown, and a song went viral on social media calling for the offender’s lynching and anal rape. Many perversely enjoyed that spectacle – and political leaders didn’t hose down the hysteria.

The Djokovic case ratcheted these unhealthy dynamics to the next level.

The Belgrade factor didn’t help – my inbox filled with hate speech I haven’t seen directed against any people from the former Yugoslavia since the 1990s Balkan wars.

Should I spell out that Djokovic is as beloved to most Serbs as Ash Barty is to most Australians – connected with pride in celebrating the best side of our complex national identity and healing some painful history? No point, I pressed delete.

Waves of anti-Novak abuse stormed ahead, including smart-arse memes that made our Tassie jingle look gentle. All clearly fuelled by Australian frustrations caused by almost two years of on/off/on again lockdowns, terrible anxiety about the current Covid spread and lack of testing access, and no real idea about what will happen next for health support, food supplies and income security.

Because Djokovic – like no small number of elite athletes internationally – refuses to consent to vaccination against Covid, he fast became the whipping boy for all of it.

My love of tennis is only eclipsed by my fandom for the rule of law. Which doesn’t mean flinging around slogans like “rules are rules” then doing whatever plays to people’s basest instincts, politically and polemically.

Within our nation and distinctive federation, the rule of law has been one of Australia’s better cultural assets, which is why so many people have emigrated here.

I’m profoundly opposed to the way Australian governments since Tampa and 9/11 have demonised people legitimately seeking asylum, and locked them up in inhumane conditions – including the Park hotel in Melbourne, where Djokovic was detained, along with the Czech tennis player Renata Voracova, whose visa was also cancelled after the fact, and who left Australia on Saturday.

I had quiet if anxious hopes that the federal court would step up in this profoundly important test case, which engages much bigger questions for Australians – including around the power dynamics between our executive and the judiciary – than anything about Djokovic and his plight.

I wasn’t disappointed, despite the unforeseen difficulty of accessing the court’s livestreamed proceedings – mainly now available on YouTube, and way more interesting than Netflix.

The mix of migration and administrative law in question – plus the “wriggly fish” of estoppel – is exceedingly complex, in a way few laypeople will appreciate, and that even most lawyers will struggle to understand.

The unsensational and impressive spectacle of Judge Anthony Kelly in dialogue with counsel was calm, clear and mutually respectful. I certainly welcomed the judge’s release order, which was based on the legally “unreasonable” treatment of Djokovic by Australian Border Force officials in the early hours of Serbian Christmas Eve, last Thursday.

The power ball has now passed to Australia’s immigration minister, who lawfully can cancel Djokovic’s legitimatised visa. If he does – in the lead-up to a pivotal Australian election, where spin doctors may have assumed that playing an anti-Serb, anti-elite and aggressively denialist card amid this government’s failures to contain Covid would be an easy point to score – Djokovic will be best out of Australia.

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