SYDNEY — “Rules are rules,” according to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — but if you’re the best tennis player in the world, the rules don’t necessarily apply.
The world has been waiting impatiently for Australia’s Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to reveal whether he’ll use his personal power to deport Novak Djokovic and ban him from Australia for three years, or allow the world No. 1 to stay in Melbourne to fight for what could be his 10th Australian Open title.
In the days since a judge ordered Djokovic’s release from hotel detention, after Australia tried to deport the COVID vaccine-skeptic upon his arrival in Melbourne, Djokovic has admitted to breaking Serbian isolation rules and effectively conceded he lied on his Australian travel declaration form.
While that ought to make deportation a no-brainer on paper, here’s what’s weighing on Hawke’s mind as he considers whether to intervene …
The ‘pub test’
The Morrison government’s strategy to win elections has a name: The “pub test.” Think Britain’s “man on the Clapham Omnibus” but three beers in, and constantly being polled about what he thinks of the PM.
And with a federal election likely just months away, Morrison’s center-right Liberal Party is hyper-alert for anything that could upset the average Australian.
The rules for traveling to Australia right now are clear: You must have a visa, a recent negative COVID test, be fully vaccinated, and truthfully fill in your travel declaration. Djokovic is unvaccinated, and his form incorrectly stated he hadn’t traveled in the 14 days prior to his arrival in Australia.
While Djokovic was holed up in hotel detention, contesting the cancellation of his visa, the Aussie PM and his colleagues were all too eager to highlight his failures.
“Rules are rules and there are no special cases,” Morrison proclaimed in a press conference on January 6. The job of Australia’s Border Force is to “apply the rules to everyone — and the Morrison Government will always back them to do that,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews added last week. “That’s the only way we can ensure a fair go for all — especially those Australians and their families who have made sacrifices over the past two years in order to abide by various pandemic rules.”
But the verdict from Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly turned the situation into a headache for the government. While Kelly ordered Djokovic be released, he did so on administrative grounds — not because the tennis champ’s visa was valid, but because the government was forced to concede he hadn’t been given enough time to respond to its cancellation.
At that point, Morrison and co. could have backed down, claimed the matter was out of their hands and allowed Djokovic to play. But instead, the government sought to save face by noting that Hawke still had the personal power to intervene and kick Djokovic out of the country.
Three days later, with the Australian Open draw now done and Djokovic in it and the tournament due to begin on Monday, Hawke’s inaction is excruciating.
If he backs down on Friday and allows Djokovic to stay, the government looks weak; the electorate remembers rules don’t matter if you’re rich and famous; and Morrison’s tough-on-immigration stance is undermined at the worst possible time.
So why isn’t Djokovic on the next plane home?
The Biloela family case
One likely reason Hawke is reluctant to use his power to personally intervene is the so-called Biloela family case. A Tamil asylum seeker family — the Murugappans — has fought for years to be allowed to return to the town of Biloela in the Australian state of Queensland, after the federal government rejected their claim for asylum on the grounds the parents had traveled to Australia by boat, and ordered them to return to Sri Lanka.
The Biloela community has rallied around the family, waging a passionate campaign for Hawke to intervene, using his personal power to allow the family to return to the town. Thus far, Hawke has largely abstained, despite the family’s terrible plight.
Now, the Djokovic case is bringing renewed attention to the Murugappans — and if Hawke chooses to intervene, even if it is to deport the tennis star, he highlights the fact he could easily do so in the Biloela case too.
And there’s one other major reason Hawke may be hesitating.
The fate of the Australian Open
The Melbourne Grand Slam is among Australia’s most cherished sporting events, attracting thousands of visitors and contributing more than 380 million Australian dollars (around €242 million) to the Victorian economy in pre-pandemic 2020.
Djokovic is the world’s top men’s tennis player, a man some fans love and others love to hate. If the 2022 Australian Open loses its headliner, the competition for the trophy would likely be between Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev (the latter of whom is being investigated over allegations of domestic abuse). Definitely less exciting.
(Side note: If Zverev is convicted of a domestic violence offense or is subject to a domestic violence order, he’d technically fail the character requirement for an Australian visa in the future.)
And more broadly, the Djokovic saga lands at a complex time for the Australian Open. While the Grand Slam is contracted to be held at Melbourne Park into the foreseeable future, the tournament’s director, Craig Tiley, has repeatedly warned its future isn’t necessarily guaranteed, particularly as a result of the pandemic. He said last year: “Even though we have a contract until 2039 for the government, it doesn’t mean that if … another country put in a lot of money for a big event that it’s easy to play at,” the top players would continue coming to Melbourne.
“The only reason we get the players here is because we offer a lot of prize money and we spend a lot of time pursuing them to come,” he added.
So what happens to a Grand Slam when the world’s top player is banned from it for three years?
Seems Hawke is afraid to find out.