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Djokovic v the World: no vaccination, a contested exemption, a denied visa and a court appeal!

It just keep’s happening!

A new year and the overlap of politics, world affairs and Grand Slam tennis continues.

One of my holiday reads was Gideon Haigh’s ‘The Brilliant Boy-Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent’. The book primarily focusses on the judicial philosophy of Herbert Vere ‘Doc’ Evatt when he was a Justice of the High Court of Australia in the 1930s. His judgements reveal a deep sense of commitment to equality and justice, seeking to utilise the law to provide humanity and fairness.

Doc Evatt resigned from the High Court bench to pursue a role in Federal Politics. Elected as the Labor Party’s member for Barton, he and was Australia’s External Affairs Minister and Attorney-General from 1941-1949. Evatt played a significant role in the establishment of the United Nations, serving as President of its General Assembly. Following the death of Ben Chifley in 1951, Evatt became Leader of the Labor Party and the Federal Opposition.

Evatt’s time as Opposition Leader was dominated by events of the Cold War, at home and abroad. Evatt’s perceived naiveté about the role of Soviet agents in Australia was exploited by Prime Minister Menzies in the so-called Petrov Affair. Vladimir Petrov, a Third Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra defected to Australia amid revelations that he had been spying for the Soviet government. His wife was forcibly removed from the Soviet embassy by KGB agents to board a plane to the USSR in Sydney. Images of the distressed Mrs. Petrov being dragged across a tarmac became seminal images of the ‘Australian’ Cold War. En route to Moscow, Mrs. Petrov’s plane landed in Darwin, where Australian security agents were able to prevent her deportation.

Evatt never recovered from being portrayed by Menzies as being “weak on communism”, given he had previously supported a successful High Court challenge in 1951 to prevent the Menzies government from banning the Communist Party of Australia. Menzies’ attempt to amend the Constitution to allow the banning of the Communist Party also failed, with a referendum to grant the Federal government the necessary power being narrowly defeated in September 1951. Evatt was a leading opponent of the referendum. Evatt led his party to electoral defeats in 1954, 1955 and 1958.

The search for justice, strong contested arguments about matters of principle and people being held against their will in airports….remind you of anybody and anything?

It seems that this year’s Australian Open will be remembered mostly for all that came before it concerning the eligibility of Novak Djokovic to play.

Organisers of the Open had made clear players could not participate unless they were vaccinated. But where there is a hard and fast rule, there is an exemption! Players could apply for an exemption and their grounds for seeking the exemption had to be considered by independent panels of doctors.

Even before news broke that Djokovic had been granted an exemption to play, Djokovic had alienated many people.

Known for his anti-vaccination sentiments, this is the man who organised a tennis tournament in Belgrade, complete with after tournament night club frolics that proved to be a Covid-19 ‘super spreader’.

As the world’s No. 1 player, it infuriated many that Djokovic did not show greater leadership of his beloved game and support mandatory vaccination. Further, his refusal to disclose the grounds for his medical exemption incensed many more. The conventional wisdom is that Djokovic probably argued that having recently contracted the virus in South Africa he immune to a present infection. However, this has not diluted perceptions of Djokovic’s hubris. Whilst he is entitled to have his medical records kept confidential, the real politik of his circumstances is that Djokovic's refusal to make clear the reasons for his exemption has only invited further suspicion and scepticism. Rod Laver and the Australian Open’s CEO, Craig Tiley, have indicated that full disclosure is necessary to defuse the public’s ire.

And of all the jurisdictions in the world, Djokovic’s cavalier attitude towards vaccination was always going to find least sympathy in Victoria. For millions of Victorians who have spent close to two years having fundamental parts of their lives heavily regulated, restricted and limited, the sight of a privileged tennis player being able to arrive without immunity and behave with impunity was galling.

Last year Queensland’s Premier bent the Covid rules to allow wives and girlfriends of Rugby League players to cross the State’s border, whilst families could not gather to attend funerals and weddings. Even the national worship of sport did nothing to stop the outrage that followed. Evatt would have depicted the public’s hostile reaction as springing from a sense of injustice that the law could be so selectively applied and manipulated by governments. Our current Prime Minister would say that the Queensland government’s decision failed the fabled “pub test.”

Not even the prospect of seeing Djokovic created tennis history by winning a 10th Australian Open and a record 21st Grand Slam title has eclipsed the community’s indignation at Djokovic being allowed to play. If social media statistics are to be believed, over 90% of Australians are opposed to his participation. If spectators have to provide proof of vaccination to watch matches at the Australian Open, why should a person on the court be allowed to be unvaccinated, especially when the long-suffering Victorian taxpayer heavily subsidises the event, more so in recent years than ever? Little sympathy exists for a princely man who seems unable to literally prick his conscience and do what everyone else has.

No-one, however, could have foreseen the denouement of Djokovic’s drama. Over the last two years it has been the Federal government that has had to accept the whims of the State governments concerning lockdowns and border closures. The worm of Federal power turned in favour of Canberra at Tullamarine airport on Thursday when Djokovic was determined not to have met conditions for entry to the country.

Federal authorities ruled that Djokovic had failed to provide proof that he had a legitimate medical exemption to vaccination. Federal government visa rules do not allow the previous contracting of a “pathogen” as a grounds for exemption to vaccination. Naturally, there was a spat between Victoria’s State government and the Federal government about who said and did what concerning the status of the visa. Following the cancellation of his visa, Djokovic was taken from the airport and detained pending imminent deportation.

Like the Petrov affair, the incident has escalated into a diplomatic stoush with Serbia’s President alleging that Australia has harassed Djokovic. On the anniversary of the Capitol riots in Washington, Djokovic’s father has called on supporters of his son to take to the streets.

The leitmotif of modern Australia being adamant about who may come to its boundless plains and under what circumstances continues to dominate our psyche: be it a White Australia Policy, a fear of Asian dominoes falling, concerns about illegal refugees, anxiety about diseased flora and fauna or a superstar Serbian tennis player during a pandemic, Australians are ardent about “national border security.”

As I type on Thursday evening, Djokovic’s lawyers have obtained an interim injunction to prevent his deportation over the coming weekend. Full legal argument will resume in the Federal Court on Monday, a week before the Open commences.

Djokovic has had many great escapes in his tennis career, none greater than saving two match points against Federer in the fifth set of their 2019 Wimbledon final. For all of his on-court heroism and defiance, Djokovic’s current off-court legal battle and struggle to secure public sympathy and support may well be his most arduous. Whatever the outcome, the 2022 Australian Open has a historic dimension before a ball has been served.

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