There is so far only one lesson in the “acquittal” of the tennis player Novak Djokovic on a charge of seeking to enter Australia unvaccinated. It is that something is badly wrong with that country’s border controls.
The judge found that the tennis star had met all reasonable requirements for admission, as was conceded by the Canberra government. He had two separate permits for exemption from vaccination, one from the Australian tennis authorities and one from the state of Victoria. His visa was cancelled at the gate after he had landed, without time to reach his lawyer. He was detained in a notorious hostel used to house asylum seekers. The procedure was bizarre.
Whether Australia’s cabinet decides to overrule the judge and restore the visa ban has yet to be seen. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, might argue that reinstating the ban will set an example to all vaccination dodgers to beware, even if they have jumped through the correct bureaucratic hoops and met the rules. Alternatively Djokovic may choose to wash Australia out of his system rather than face an unpleasant reception from tennis fans at next week’s Australian Open. They have suffered extreme lockdowns for want of the vaccinations that Djokovic opposes.
However, this particular fiasco has little to do with the fact that Djokovic has refused the Covid vaccine. Equally it should be irrelevant that Morrison – and others – have so clearly wanted Djokovic’s high-profile scalp for the pro-vaccination cause.
By handling Djokovic’s case so badly, the Australian authorities have turned this into a test for the cause of natural justice and the championing of human rights. The judge asked not whether vaccination is a good idea, but what the tennis player should have done that he failed to do. There was no answer, leaving the judge “agitated” by the tennis player’s “manifestly unjust” treatment, as if he were a plague carrier requiring instant incarceration. At a time when authoritarian governments everywhere are riding roughshod over the rule of law, the Djokovic decision is an admittedly modest victory for its champions.
Around the world, including in Australia, rules governing immigration are under extreme strain. British border officials are gearing up to turn back dinghies in the Channel. Syrians are sent back and forth across the eastern Mediterranean. Refugees are dying off the coast of Libya. Latin Americans are making their way through Mexico and hitting Donald Trump’s “wall”. Dictatorships and democracies alike face internal and external pressures that are bringing anarchy to their borders.
Ever more nations on every continent are seeing these borders weaken and break. How they respond will have a dramatic effect on international relations as well as human rights. For every Djokovic at the gate there will be hundreds of thousands whose cases go unheard. Therein lies his relevance.