Australia

The political cost of letting Djokovic stay was too high for Morrison

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In politics, like tennis, everyone keeps score – and Novak Djokovic has just lost a match on basic political numbers.

Scott Morrison made the rational decision to send the wealthy tennis star home after calculating the enormous political cost of giving him special treatment.

Letting him stay would have been a guaranteed way for the Prime Minister to ice a cake of political blunders with a thick layer of political madness.

It was untenable to allow the unvaccinated tennis player to gain easy entry to Australia when he had misled border officials about his travel to Spain and been caught in public in Serbia while infectious with the coronavirus. The penalty is that he may be denied entry to Australia for three years.

But political factors were fundamental to the decision by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, one of Morrison’s closest allies.

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The government can see that Australians are in no mood to give Djokovic a waiver when so many people have put up with tough rules for so long – even when that has meant closing the border to the country’s own citizens.

That means the decision is the right call. Australians are anxious about the Omicron wave and searching for rapid antigen tests at a time when food and grocery supplies are running low at some supermarkets. Morrison is under pressure to get the nation through a grim summer. It is no time to offer special exemptions to a tennis player.

While some fear for the status of the Australian Open, the decisive factor has been the experience of ordinary Australians, especially those who have aired their frustrations to government MPs.

Australians have been barred from visiting a dying parent in hospital, blocked from seeing a new grandchild and forbidden from having a wedding. Should they accept that a tennis star gets the leeway they were denied?

Angering those Australians would have been a huge danger for Morrison when he is only a few months away from an election.

But this is not game, set and match. The entire saga has put Australia’s pandemic dysfunction up in lights. It was a national embarrassment and may continue through the courts.

There were blunders at every turn – like the failure to prepare for the problem weeks before Djokovic arrived at the passport control desk in Melbourne. Nobody was willing to make a clear statement that he should not come.

The federal government seemed to think the problem would disappear. Or that someone else, like Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, would make the call. Only at the very end, when it was obvious that Morrison would have to own the outcome, was the process begun to turn him away.

The affair became another arena for the blame game so common in the pandemic.

In a classic example of overlapping government, everyone had a say. Tennis Australia, the Victorian government and the federal government all took a role. Yet the medical panel set up by Victoria had no real authority over the decision. In the end, border control was and is a federal job.

Morrison and Hawke made a final decision that seems to be in line with community sentiment and, just possibly, the government’s internal polling. Most Australians would probably like the tennis star to go home. But that does not make the outcome an easy political win.

If the government thought this was playing well, Hawke would have announced his ruling early in the day in front of four flags. Instead, he issued the decision in a statement just before the 6pm news on Friday night, limiting the scope for reaction.

This was probably tactical and might have reflected the long wait for lawyers to check the fine print of the decision, but it tended to compound the sense that the government was scrambling to fix something it should have foreseen. After missing a chance to tell Djokovic to stay away, the government was humiliated in a court defeat and then took days to figure out what to do next.

In the end, it chose damage control. The political calculation was made. Djokovic had to go.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.Connect via Twitter or email.

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