Djokovic is deported from Australia: split realities and the fallout
Novak Djokovic has been deported from Australia. He is currently on a plane to Dubai and will not defend his Australian Open title.
I’m not going to go into the weeds of the judgement. The simple summary is that Minister Alex Hawke’s decision that Djokovic’s presence in the country was a threat, on three separate grounds, of “public health”, “good order”, and “public interest” was essentially inarguable for Djokovic’s lawyers. All the government had to do to uphold the decision was prove that the Minister acted rationally about a decision that he carefully took four days to consider and construct. As a result Djokovic’s lawyer’s attempts to argue whether the evidence or reasonableness making up the decision were sufficient, largely fell on deaf ears and ran them into multiple argumentative dead ends. Djokovic’s previous reported comments on vaccination, status as unvaccinated a year after vaccines became available, and recent flouting of COVID laws in Serbia after having tested positive, all became insurmountably relevant within the extremely broad scope of the Minister’s decision. Djokovic never had a chance. This was shrewd, if scarily heavy handed, manoeuvring on behalf of the Australian government, knowing that had they instead challenged Djokovic’s visa on the grounds of the legitimacy of his medical exemption (still unexamined), or the incorrect details on his travel declaration form, they could have faced more technical arguments about procedural error which sunk their case in the first judgement on Monday. Instead of going down the proportional route, the Australian government threw an immigration-law-shaped kitchen sink at Djokovic. And unless the Minister for Immigration had made a series of extremely unlikely blunders while preparing the cancellation decision, that sink simply couldn’t miss.
I’ve been amazed over the last week or so watching how simple, or black and white, many people (journalists, fans, players et al) seem to think this saga is. Good vs evil. But how one views this sad and inflammatory shambles depends largely on which lens you view the situation through. If you believe governments have abused their power and overreached during this health crisis, you may view much of this situation as an authoritarian overreaction flying in the face of the most fundamental rights of individual autonomy. If you believe vaccination is the utmost priority for both individual and community health during a deadly global pandemic (especially in countries with lower seroprevalence), and that individuals during such unusual times have a ‘greater good’ responsibility to one another, you may view this as Djokovic being an entitled celebrity who refused to get vaccinated when entering another country, all for the trivial privilege to hit a fuzzy yellow ball around a rectangle. If you’re an adult from Serbia, or from a number of countries affected by the Yugoslav wars and resulting sanctions, and have experienced horrible immigration experiences first hand, and you see the most powerful and idolised among you in Novak Djokovic still suffering, you may feel defeated in the face of inarguable flaws in border control and wider immigration unfairness. If you live in a country which has suffered extremely strict lockdowns and self-isolation rules, perhaps you’ve missed weddings or funerals because of testing positive and having to isolate, then you may see Djokovic swanning around Belgrade last month doing a photoshoot while knowingly COVID positive as unforgivable behaviour. If you’re an Australian or Kiwi and have seen family members recently locked out of their own country because of strict immigration and COVID rules, and you watch a tennis player walk in on a medical exemption which was designed for those unable, rather than unwilling, to be vaccinated, you may see it as special treatment and an undermining of your home country. If you’re from a nation like Australia, or any that have had especially strict rules around COVID, and you feel that the rules have been too catch-all for the population and that government policy has often harmfully lagged contrasting epidemiological data around topics like community spread differences between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, then you may view this as an unnecessary political stunt which flew in the face of up-to-date science. If you watched what the refugees in Djokovic’s detention hotel, some of whom have been there for thousands of days, have gone through then you may either feel that Djokovic’s problems are wee and privileged in comparison, and that the fuss around a tennis player is nonsensical, or that this entire saga reveals foundationally broken rules about who can travel where in this world. If you’ve personally experienced the toll of the various anti-vaccination movements, you may see this entire situation as an irredeemably sad consequence of misinformation. If you’re a parent of kids who have found the pandemic developmentally stunting, or even an emotionally or physically damaging experience, you may be wondering whether the risk analysis of the COVID policy that underpins most governments, including the Djokovic saga, is completely miscalculated.
I labour the point here intentionally and yet still leave out many perspectives. Myriad concurrent realties are all clashing noisily, some overlapping and experienced simultaneously, but others so detached in their view of this situation that their existence may as well be completely unknown to other sides. The polarisation around the Djokovic story serves as a current, cultural microcosm for how easily and quickly opposing viewpoints tend to exponentially rocket away from one another in today’s age, creating multitudinous and entirely different planes of existence, at velocity so great that any middle ground immediately ceases to exist.
The Djokovic saga is made up of many, many of these realities. Multiple of which are unique to a bizarre, once in a lifetime pandemic. And most of these lenses mentioned above have accuracy to them. People are not insane for seeing this situation in many of these ways. And while some are inarguably more logical than others, the biggest problem here is not that so many realities exist for different people (this has always been the case to some extent), it’s that it has become orders of magnitude harder for those viewing the world through those lenses to reasonably compare, communicate and assimilate their views with those around them. The last 6ish years especially, has seen noisy polarisation like this soar. Politics, and its loudest figures, becoming closer to many people’s idea of entertainment than leadership than perhaps ever before. Media’s extraordinary shift from “stodgy paper(s) of record into juicy collection(s) of great narratives” (I shit you not this is literally a self-description of the New York Times), which shoves audiences of just about any content these days far deeper down their various rabbit holes of opinion than ever. And from those deep burrows of opinion, the lenses through which people try to spy the world get murkier, more distorted, and become more like viewing reality through a kaleidoscope of confusing, narrative driven noise rather than telescopes locking onto a priori truths.
On this topic of information chaos, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke noted that the public perception of Djokovic’s views was just as important to the decision as what his (Novak’s) current views might be. While the logic of this position certainly makes sense as it regards to potential harm to the public and their health (after all, whether or not a protest causes harm doesn’t depend on whether that protest is acting on good/bad info), what it means in the wider context of this information environment feels very unsettling. As media continues to prioritise ‘juicy narratives’, the ‘public perception’ of human beings becomes inarguably manipulated. In this instance it’s reasonable to suggest that Djokovic has acted sufficiently irresponsibly in the past month, at the very least regarding his breaking of COVID rules while positive, to objectively justify some of the ‘public perception’ of his views towards COVID. But in general the precedent of deciding whether to unceremoniously toss someone out of a country based on the public perception of that person, at a time when public perception is more game-able than ever, feels open to severe mis-use. A more evidentiary argument and justification, from both sides, would have been far closer to many of the tenets of justice which successful and prosperous countries like Australia hold dear.
At the absolute foundation of this story are a few, simpler realities that I still hope any lens could display relatively un-smudged, even for those in the most entrenched burrows. The Australian Open Tournament Director (and Tennis Australia CEO) Craig Tiley tried to organise paths into the country for a limited number of unvaccinated players and officials. Tiley was told multiple times in writing from the Federal government that having caught COVID in the past 6 months is not a sufficient contraindication for being fully vaccinated. These rules, although likely miscommunicated at various stages, were clear enough for 97% of the top 100 men’s players, some of which (unenthusiastically) got vaccinated in order to be able to play the Australian Open. Nonetheless, Djokovic arrived earnestly in Australia, unvaccinated, having been assured by easily trusted figures of authority, including the state of Victoria by way of his medical exemption, that he was cleared to play. Djokovic loudly proclaiming his ‘special exemption’ to the world, on Instagram just before flying, was unbelievably tone deaf to the current state of Australia and the blindingly obvious majority of sentiment in the country. Djokovic has an entire team around him which in part should help him navigate situations like that. That they failed this badly is extraordinary. What then followed these various missteps however was a completely disproportionate and inconsistent response to a tennis player wanting to play a tournament, largely because governments often default to disproportionate responses simply because of their sheer size. Inevitable politicisation, public and media pressure, and the deafening, dizzying clashing of the various realities mentioned above, transformed the situation into a ticking bomb that became too big to be defused quietly in the eyes of a government under pressure. Djokovic’s actions in Serbia, a few weeks ago after testing positive, sealed part of his public opinion fate. But much of the reporting around Djokovic over the past 10 days, including furiously and incompetently trying to prove conspiracies like falsification of COVID tests on one side and wilful misrepresentation of what had happened in Monday’s court case on the other, undermined much of the supposed media responsibility.
I don’t for one second think that Djokovic had obviously bad intentions. But it doesn’t matter. Incompetence usually beats out evil for a lot of bad stuff that ends up happening in this world, and all parties bear responsibility here. Arguing over who should take the lion’s share of that responsibility will once again come down to which combination of those lenses you’re looking through.
As we emerge from the messy and long fallout of all this, a few things will become clear. The constant pyroclastic flow of information careening towards and through us all, to a backdrop of societies with increasingly inconsistent, yet loud, perceptions of their citizens, isn’t going to decelerate. This pandemic has been fucking awful for billions of us. We have all shared parts of that misery, some absorbing more damage than others. As a result there is inescapable common ground regardless of the number of lenses through which people view their lives. This situation would have been easily avoided were we better at understanding and trying, at least occasionally, to close the perception gap between those lenses. Understanding how others see the world is in desperately short supply at the moment but it’s also the only way to combat this side-effect where reality splinters dangerously and endlessly into disconnected extremist islands. One of the only ways to snap back, even temporarily, into any sense of a shared reality is by being better at understanding why others do the things they do.
There are no winners here. But there are, sadly, plenty of victims of how the world currently works. Djokovic has suffered catastrophic reputational damage while also being unwittingly used and co-opted by multiple extremist movements who care infinitely more about their selfish goals than his wellbeing. One of the four most important events in our sport, and its leader, face significant questions around their competence, motivations and behaviour, all in the midst of potentially existential financial concerns on the back of COVID. And deep distrust in those who govern us grows stronger for many during a historically unbalanced time to be alive.
Thankfully attention now turns back to those on, rather than in, court. Hopefully they can do what sport has always done, offering up a joyful and shared escapism while we pick up the pieces of more serious realities.
See you on Thursday
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Top: OLIVER BUNIC,ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty
Bottom: Diego Fedele/Getty