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No One is Above the Law

Novak Djokovic. World No. 1 tennis player. His whole saga about trying to enter Australia without being vaccinated made global headlines. It turned out almost like a soap opera. He was initially refused entry despite having a permit, for which he successfully appealed. Yet the government once again rejected his entry, so he appealed once more but ended up being deported. Various news outlets either condemned or condoned Australian laws. So, what happened?

Novak Djokovic. World No. 1 tennis player. His whole saga about trying to enter Australia without being vaccinated made global headlines. It turned out almost like a soap opera. He was initially refused entry despite having a permit, for which he successfully appealed. Yet the government once again rejected his entry, so he appealed once more but ended up being deported. Various news outlets either condemned or condoned Australian laws. So, what happened?

This drama centred on Djokovic, an unvaccinated player who wanted to play in the Australian Open, where all players must be fully vaccinated unless exempted.

The timeline of this scandal can be traced back to when Djokovic tested positive for COVID-19 on 16 December 2021 in Serbia. He then attended a charity event in Belgrade the next day after receiving a negative result from the pre-event RAT test. However, on 18 December, after receiving the official positive PCR results, he knowingly broke Serbia’s isolation rules for a photoshoot and an interview with L’Équipe newspaper.

Djokovic eventually recovered, and Tennis Australia granted him a temporary medical exemption from Australia’s vaccination requirements on 30 December on the grounds of a previous infection. Australian Open organisers said this exemption was given by a panel of medical experts and reviewed by the Victorian Government. On 4 January, he announced his travel plan to Australia based on his medical exemption on Instagram. This declaration led to a largely adverse reaction from Australians, especially Victorians, as they have been subjected to some of the harshest COVID-19 lockdowns worldwide. 

Once Djokovic landed on 5 January, the Australian Border Force detained him and promptly cancelled his visa based on him not having a valid exemption. His lawyer filed a hasty court injunction against deportation, which he won on the grounds of procedural fairness, arguing that he was not given enough time and support to respond to the interrogation at the border appropriately. While waiting for the outcome, he spent three days at Park Hotel, infamous for immigration detention.

Despite his win, inconsistencies were found in his paperwork. Djokovic’s agent incorrectly filled out a travel declaration form stating he had not travelled in the past 14 days before his expected departure from Spain on 4 January. Based on the false statement, Djokovic was then issued a border travel permit by the Victorian Government. Note that while he won on the grounds of procedural fairness, he had not proven that his exemption was valid. Minister Hawke later said that he would consider cancelling Djokovic’s visa using his power as the immigration minister.

On 14 January, Minister Hawke exercised his power to cancel Djokovic’s visa based “on health and good order grounds, because it was in the public interest to do so”. The decision was based on Djokovic’s anti-vax stance, which may encourage anti-vax sentiment and “civil unrest of the kind previously experienced in Australia with rallies and protests, which may be a source of community transmission”. Hawke noted in the same statement, “The Morrison Government is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Djokovic appealed one last time, but the Federal Court's three-judge panel unanimously rejected his appeal. So, he was finally deported on 16 January. While the visa cancellation comes with an automatic three-year ban on entering the country, this ban can be waived under special circumstances such as compelling or compassionate reasons.

You might be wondering how the situation turned out to be such a mess? Djokovic had his visa cancelled twice in around 11 days and was eventually deported. This saga has been called an “unforced error of colossal proportions”. So, who is to blame, and what exactly went wrong?

In fact, the deliberate actions of various institutions and Djokovic himself all contributed to this chaos. First of all, Tennis Australia granted the medical exemption based on Djokovic’s recent past infection, despite being warned by the federal government that this was not considered a valid reason. However, this information must not have been passed on to Djokovic or his team somewhere along the way. His visa was initially reviewed and incorrectly approved by the system and then cancelled only upon further inspection by a human. So, perhaps the government’s immigration system needs to be altered to prevent this from happening again.

Still, all this could have been avoided if only Djokovic had been vaccinated. Two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza even said, “[A]ll this could have been avoided, like we’ve all done, by getting vaccinated, doing all the things we had to do to come here in Australia. Everybody knew very clearly the rules … I don’t think it’s that difficult.” Apart from the problem of the invalid medical exemption, he is an unvaccinated player wanting to play where you have to be vaccinated to play. The medical exemption he was granted should have never been granted. And Djokovic should have never even been allowed to enter the country. While it might have been acceptable in the eyes of Tennis Australia, it was not approved by the federal government. These are the ultimate laws that govern our border.

Furthermore, outcries were heard over the Park Hotel location, where he was held while waiting for his appeal. Djokovic’s family and the Serbian government had denounced the conditions of where he was staying; in addition, the Serbian government had advocated better accommodation. People need to remember that the place Djokovic stayed is also where refugees have stayed for years, waiting for their visas to be processed. Park Hotel detainees have called it “disgusting” and “cruel” conditions to stay in. It is unfair that just because someone is a world-famous tennis player, he should not be subjected to the same laws and requirements as everyone else. If a place is deemed unsuitable for one person, it should be unacceptable for all. Famous people should not get any special treatment in this regard. The point is that we are all human, and therefore everyone should be able to stay in a place that is considered safe and hygienic. 

Speaking of equal treatment, it is noteworthy that another player, Renata Vorácová, who was also granted a medical exemption, also ended up having her visa cancelled and leaving the country. In contrast to Djokovic’s case, Vorácová was only briefly (if at all) mentioned in the news. This shows how being famous can lead to special attention and single-handedly cause a worldwide scandal. But when it comes to the law, no one is above the law.

There is no doubt that in the future that whenever someone mentions Australian Open 2022, they will bring up Djokovic's visa saga as the story made global headlines even before the tournament started. This whole drama took the spotlight away from the entire Australian Open tournament—the weeks and days leading up to the Grand Slam should have been a rising hype of excitement, celebrating the different tennis talents from all around the world instead of a series of court proceedings.

Djokovic being deported in the end is the lawful outcome, and, as an unvaccinated person, he should not have been allowed to enter Australia in the first place. We, Victorians in particular, had been in lockdown in and out for nearly two years, and the vast majority of us have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The fact that an unvaccinated person was allowed to enter the country is an insult to us all. Just because he is an influential person, it does not mean that he is privileged over others. Influential people should, by all means, be subject to the same rules and laws as everyone else. Tennis Australia, Novak Djokovic and the Australian Government need to take a critical look at what happened and ensure the same mistakes do not occur again.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022


Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

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