Novak Djokovic has claimed victory on a court and is back on a more familiar one.
But as he prepares for the Australian Open in Melbourne Park, he does so with a sword of Damoclean hanging over his head.
Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, a close ally of the Prime Minister, is vested with extraordinary powers: at any moment, with a ministerial stroke, he can end Djokovic’s right to stay in the country and ban him for three years.
Within government, these are known as the “powers of God,” and their use, and misuse, has been controversial for decades.
“I’ve formed the opinion that I have too much power,” said a former immigration minister, Senator Chris Evans, more than a decade ago.
“I feel uncomfortable with that, not only because of the concern to play God, but also because of the lack of transparency and accountability for those decisions and the lack in some cases of appeal rights against those decisions.”
Since Evans conveyed those concerns to parliament, successive governments have falsely confused migration with terrorism or criminality to justify increasingly extreme powers.
Australia’s federal court case list is quietly filled with dozens of challenges to visa cancellations. They are rarely as lucky as Djokovic: backed by money, institutional support, media attention and a legal team out of the crowd.
The worst case scenario he faced was dropping out of a tennis tournament (albeit a significant one).
But for a refugee arriving in Australia seeking protection, with no money or resources, no English and no knowledge of Australia’s arcane migration law, what prospects for success do you have?
A look at the government’s actions in the Djokovic case illuminates the capricious and arbitrary attitude taken by the Australian government towards people seeking entry.
Australia is unique among liberal democracies in that it detains asylum seekers indefinitely (though only those arriving by boat).
There are, right now, as Djokovic practices on the courts of Melbourne Park, refugees who came to Australia as children – whose claim for protection has been formally recognized – who have been stranded in detention for nine years. A wasted childhood, an adult formed in unjustified imprisonment.
There are stateless people – who do not have a country to return to – who have been detained for more than a decade.
For them, there is no quick resolution, no sympathizers waving flags in the street, no presidential intervention, no quick court hearing, and no glare from the forensic media.
For them, it’s just the slow, crushing demoralization of potentially unlimited incarceration.
Australia’s detention regime is harmful, psychiatrists, the United Nations and those who run the regime itself have repeatedly warned. The uncertainty of indefinite detention, the Australian government has been forced to admit, is even more damaging.
Visa cancellations, whether at the border or in the community (as two others involved in the Australian Open discovered), are common. Visas are routinely canceled by the government on so-called “character grounds”, the powers being used against those convicted of serious crimes or those believed to pose a threat to Australia.
But these extraordinary powers, in certain indisputable cases, are also often misused.
Some in Australia have had their visas canceled for not committing any crime. A stateless person acquitted of a wrongly accused murder had his protection visa canceled independently last year: faced arrest for the rest of his life.
Another man, 35, who had lived in Australia since the age of one, had his visa canceled, and faced deportation to New Zealand, for belonging to an outlaw motorcycle gang that was not outlawed in the state where he lived. His behavior was “totally legal”, the minister was forced to admit.
In both cases, the federal court (the same court in which Djokovic fought his case) intervened, after months of detention and uncertainty, to find, in the latter case, that the minister’s decision was “disconcerting”, “irrational and illogical “and” legally unreasonable. “
The Djokovic case has also exposed a global apartheid around the movement.
Before the global pandemic, for those with the correct passport or enough money, free movement had become an expectation, a right that could be trusted.
For those without (many fleeing war, famine, persecution or natural disasters), the world was a very restricted place, borders were hardened against them, with promises (and realities) or walls or guards armed, with forced deportations or ships forced to return. Sea
“Djokovic’s arrest and subsequent swift appeal process stands in stark contrast to the continued and prolonged inhumane treatment of refugees in Australia’s migration system,” said Australian Refugee Council Executive Director Paul Power.
“Refugees seeking asylum at Australian airports do not even have access to lawyers before they are put on the next flight out of Australia, let alone the opportunity to defend their case.”
That Djokovic was momentarily in the same hotel as the refugees now in his ninth year of indefinite detention made the contrast even more stark.
Much has been made of the “Fortress Australia” mentality that has been made public with the coronavirus pandemic. But the isolationist streak runs much deeper.
In its incompetent handling of the Djokovic case, the Australian government has exposed not just one bizarre case, but systemic structural flaws in the way Australia treats those who reach its shores.
Nation-states have the legal right to determine who crosses their borders. But there is an obligation that they treat people fairly, act reasonably and without duplicity.
Compared to his colleagues, Djokovic is not popular in Australia.
His stance against vaccination seems, to many in a highly vaccinated and repeatedly locked up population, irresponsible, authoritarian and arrogant.
The Australian government could have tried to make an example of the best male tennis player in the world, as a demonstration that, as the prime minister put it, “the rules are the rules.” It could have chosen to flag it as a political distraction from its chaotic response to the pandemic.
But it has done the opposite. Rules, apparently, weren’t rules. Government agents saw fit to act as they wanted, only this time, the world could see how it happens.
Djokovic’s case reveals a much bigger problem.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism