Monday 10 January 2022

A victory also for Australia


I don’t follow tennis very much, but what little I knew about Novak Djokovic I didn’t much like. My initial response to his being denied entry to Australia was schadenfreude. I don’t know why I wasn’t a Djokovic fan. It was rather unfair. But something about his manner grated on with me. I’d read stories about his rather weird views and opposition to the vaccination. Anyway, whenever I caught him on television I rooted for the other player. All this just changed. I reflected that I had been unjust and that Djokovic’s treatment at the airport in Melbourne was unjust. This has turned me into a Djokovic fan.

The whole business of international travel depends on us believing that if we are granted a visa, we will not be denied entry into a country. If Australia routinely denied people with valid visas entry at the airport, it’s tourist industry would collapse. A visa may not guarantee entry, but if we seriously believed there was a realistic chance, we would be stopped at the border we just wouldn’t bother to travel to these places at all.

The embassies of countries like Russia can be capricious. I have known people to be refused a tourist visa because they have visited that country too often. Journalists can be kicked out if they too frequently write things that are critical of Putin. But I have never heard of someone with a valid visa being denied entry to Russia on political grounds. It is clear that this is what happened to Djokovic.

When Djokovic received his visa, the Australian authorities were happy for him to come to Australia and compete in the Australian Open. But there was a public backlash. This is partly because Djokovic is not liked by many tennis fans. If  a more popular tennis player had been given an Australian visa in similar circumstances there would have been less of a problem. Likewise, if an obscure tennis player had been allowed entry under the same circumstances there would have been no public backlash. This indeed was the case. Some less than famous tennis players have been competing in Australia after entering in exactly the same way as Djokovic.

What happened next? The Australian Government panicked. Someone made a phone call to the airport. Stop Djokovic entering. Find something, anything wrong with his visa. Revoke it. Put Djokovic in an unpleasant hotel and maybe he will decide to leave of his own accord.

But Djokovic didn’t panic. If you have ever arrived at an airport after a long-distance flight after little if any sleep, you know that you are in no fit state to answer questions in English let alone in a to you foreign language. Imagine if you arrived in Belgrade from Australia only to find you had been denied entry and the border guards refused to allow you to talk on your phone. How would you feel as they fired questions at you in Serbian? Djokovic of course speaks excellent English, but who would want to deal with having to make crucial legal decisions in a foreign language while jet lagged.

Djokovic could have taken the next flight out. He could have cursed Australia and its people. But instead, he remained calm and polite, stayed in the awful hotel, eat the awful food and waited for justice.

What we have learned this morning is that the rule of law still applies in Australia. That’s a very good thing to know. It is the difference between a serious democracy and somewhere like Russia. Australians may be angry this morning that Djokovic has been allowed into their country. But they should feel safer that public opinion has not swayed the decision of a judge even if it has swayed the decision of a government.

The rights of people we dislike must be treated just as fairly as the rights of those we do like. That’s what the rule of law means. Governments depend on public opinion, which is one of the reasons why they sometimes act stupidly and unfairly, but Australians should be grateful that they live in a country where the courts will stand up to the Government and protect the rights of even the most unpopular person in Australia.

I have enthusiastically accepted every vaccine that has been given me. I disagree with the stance of those who oppose vaccination. But I also believe that in a free society we should be free to disagree. We should not emmerder (as Mr Macron put it) on those who have a different conscience to us. It amounts to a form of coercion.  

Vaccines are primarily beneficial to the recipient. In the past few weeks, we have seen omicron spread freely in Britain even though the vast majority of people have been vaccinated. If vaccines were able to stop the spread of omicron they would have done so. But they have stopped most people from getting seriously unwell.

Djokovic does not have Covid now. Therefore, he cannot spread it. He might catch it from someone in Australia, but this is equally true whether he has been vaccinated or not. If he catches Covid, he might pass it on to someone else, but this is the case whether he has been vaccinated or not. Omicron is spreading freely in Australia, the idea that one Serbian tennis player more or less is going to make a material difference to the health situation in Australia is simply absurd.

Public opinion in Australia is angry because the very strict attempt to keep Covid out has failed. But Australians should reflect that they have suffered far fewer deaths than European countries and, in most respects, have been fortunate. Keeping Covid out for so long gave them the chance to be vaccinated, whereas in Britain we had to face Covid initially with no defences.

Australian anger may seek a victim in Novak Djokovic, but sacrificing a scape goat will not save one life in Australia. But the fact that Australian justice has stood up against Australian anger and the Australian Government has saved Australia. It has shown Australia to be a country with the rule of law. It has shown it to be a country that is incorruptible. Advance Australia fair.