As an academic focused on political and religious extremism and violence, I have been researching the emergence of new forms of extremism and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, both nationally and internationally. I find the government position to be problematic.
Djokovic was pictured partying and dancing in a packed nightclub amid the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020 and was still granted a visa to participate in the 2021 Australian Open (which he won). What is he alleged to have done in the past 11 months to have fostered anti-vaccine sentiment and cause civil unrest? Or, given that he was granted a visa, what has he done since his arrival to do so?
Djokovic himself has remained largely silent since his arrival and detention, releasing a statement on Instagram outlining his version of events and stating “utmost respect for the Australian government and their authorities”. His case has certainly become a central talking point in anti-vaccination and “freedom movement” protest groups, and they have adopted his case and treatment as evidence (in their eyes) of the legitimacy of their cause.
Some have talked of protests at the Australian Open, which has now been ascribed a symbolic value, however Djokovic has not engaged with these groups in any manner and the relationship is to the best of my knowledge, non-existent.
Perhaps more concerning for the status of the Australian Open has been the potential for clashes between Serbian and Croatian supporters as witnessed in previous years. Heightened by the emotion of recent events (as demonstrated in clashes between pro-Djokovic supporters and police last week outside his lawyers’ offices), it is quite likely that ultra-nationalist sentiment would resurface.
However, while highly inflammatory statements from Djokovic’s father Srdjan have indisputably contributed to this violent potential and have not been refuted by Novak Djokovic, he is under no legal obligation to do this, so far as the status of his visa is concerned.
Australia has a history of refusing visas to divisive political figures. Most recently of note, far-right figure Gavin McInnes, founder of extremist group the Proud Boys, was judged to be of “bad character” and denied a visa in November 2018. It is conceivable and perhaps even desirable that Djokovic could have been denied on these grounds prior to his entry, but to do so after losing a court case related to the validity of his medical exemption reeks of political opportunism by a government seeking to distract from broader political challenges.
This debacle touches both sides of politics. The inconvenient truth for those at the left of the political spectrum celebrating his expulsion is this: the discretionary power exercised by the Immigration Minister this week is also used to override favourable court outcomes for refugee applicants, including those who shared the same hotel as Djokovic for much of the past week.
That some elements of the left have embraced this authoritarian approach and disregard for the judiciary in favour of political discretion raises deeper questions about their commitment to democratic principles.
The very public poor management and treatment of Novak Djokovic this week, something experienced by many seeking to enter Australia, has only served to add fuel to the fire of the grievance-fuelled narratives of both anti-vaccination activists and ultra-right-wing nationalists alike. This may be considered politically palatable.
However, the gross mismanagement demonstrated will also contribute to the ongoing loss of trust in the political system and politicians amongst a much larger segment of the community that gives rise to exploitation by populist politicians. In an election year, this should be cause for considerable concern.
Dr Josh Roose is Senior Research Fellow (Politics and Religion) at Deakin University.