There was little surprise when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was engulfed in rage ignited by the vaccine release granted to tennis star Novak Djokovic to play in the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.
After all, Morrison’s government was busy battered by a surge in Omicron cases, a chambolic test system and empty supermarket shelves just months before an election.
When Djokovic, the unvaccinated world number one tennis player, announced that he was flying to Melbourne to defend his Australian Open title, Morrison, whose liberal party followed Labor in the polls, went on the offensive.
The prime minister warned that Djokovic, who was still in the air, could be “put back on the first plane home”. Djokovic’s visa was duly canceled and he was detained to await deportation.
But a federal court’s decision to cancel the cancellation of the visa On Monday, the Morrison government embarrassed and drew attention to inconsistencies in Australia’s immigration laws in a country that prides itself on its strict border controls.
The confused handling of the unvaccinated athlete was particularly upsetting to voters who saw some of the world’s strictest restrictions.
The court ruling left the Morrison government with two politically distasteful options.
It may choose to waive Djokovic’s visa, despite Morrison declaring the player may not be in the country. Or it could cancel the visa again and keep him. However, there is a risk that a diplomatic struggle with the Serbian government and street protests in Melbourne, which have just emerged from the longest Covid-19 confinement in the world.
Morrison insisted last week that Djokovic be treated the same way as anyone else who tried to run “the border” to Australia.
The view was welcomed by an Australian public who reacted angrily to the news that a seemingly healthy Djokovic had been granted a release despite the country’s strict vaccination laws.
Mark Kenny, a professor at The Australian Studies Institute, said the government was under tremendous pressure due to rising infection rates, Covid testing problems and supply chain challenges. But it “sniffed the mood” of voters who were angry about Djokovic’s arrival.
“It seemed pretty clear that Morrison was happy to look strong on boundaries and not talk about the multiple failures of the Covid Test. “For a moment, it looked like Morrison was a winner,” said Kenny.
For more than two decades, the Liberal Party has made border control a central part of its policy. The decision on whether to cancel Djokovic’s visa again will be taken by Alex Hawke, the immigration minister and one of the prime minister’s closest allies.
A government official said: “In accordance with the proper process, Minister Hawke will carefully consider the matter. As the matter is ongoing, it is inappropriate for legal reasons to comment further. “
Maria Jockel at BDO Migration Services said a minister using personal powers to cancel the visa again is not unheard of. But it will have to be justified on the basis of public interest and is likely to be challenged, which will open up Australia’s border laws for greater investigation.
She added that the federal and state governments “jointly require the wisdom of Solomon” to find a solution to border issues such as those presented by the Djokovic saga.
Australia’s complex immigration laws have been under investigation since Djokovic was detained at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport last week. The player’s visa was issued by the federal government and his medical exemption was signed by two independent panels of medical experts, one supported by the Victorian government, and granted by Tennis Australia’s chief medical officer.
But that did not guarantee him access to the land and court documents revealed that Djokovic may have incorrectly completed another document – a travel statement – which is separate from the visa.
Kenny said the decision to issue a visa to unvaccinated people who may not meet the entry requirements forced the border force to make “second guess” applications. “Ambiguity went into the process,” he said.
The federal and state governments and Tennis Australia have been trying to blame the controversy, with the justification for the release – that Djokovic has gained Covid-19 over the past six months – hotly debated.
Victoria Andrews, the Labor Prime Minister of Victoria, emphasized on Tuesday that his government was not responsible for the border crossing. “We did not try to convince the Commonwealth government to allow anyone. In fact, the opposite,” he said.
Anthony Albanese, the Labor Party leader who will run against the prime minister in the coming months, said: “Scott Morrison has failed testing, detection, vaccines and quarantine. This is the grand slam of pandemic failures.”
Even some of Morrison’s own MPs have called on the government to drop the issue. John Alexander, a Liberal MP and a former professional tennis player, said it would be a “mistake” to try to deport Djokovic after the court ruling. “I see it as something that should not become a political issue,” he told Australian public broadcaster ABC.
Yet Kenny argued that this was already a political dilemma for the government. “Either they double or they do not,” Kenny said. “In any case, there is a political cost to Morrison.”