Thirteen years ago, an exiled Uyghur human rights activist named Rebiya Kadeer applied to my government for a visa to visit Australia and speak at the Melbourne Film Festival on the Chinese government’s treatment of her fellow citizens in their homeland of Xinjiang.
It had all the makings of a political spectacle. The Chinese government demanded we refuse Kadeer, labelling her a terrorist. Activists and event organisers steadfastly supported Kadeer’s right to speak.
The Liberal Party sided with Beijing, demanding we stop the visit to avoid “offending China”.
Our position was clear: Australia was governed by the rule of law and regular administrative procedure. If Beijing could explain why Kadeer’s application breached the Migration Act, it was free to make that case.
In fact, I remember asking the Chinese ambassador at the time to provide us with evidence that she was a terrorist. They didn’t.
All applicants for Australian visas deserved to have their claims processed without being thrust into the crossfire of Australian domestic politics.
Which brings me to Novak Djokovic. The only reason this simple visa process has become a rolling political circus is because this Prime Minister couldn’t help but sink his grubby fingers into it for domestic political purposes. In case people have forgotten, it is not normal for world leaders to announce individual visa cancellations via Twitter.
For the past week, the government’s management of the tennis star’s fate has in part been designed to distract Australians from the real-world consequences of Scott Morrison’s “living with the virus” – a testing system that has collapsed, hospitalisations rising exponentially and frontline medical workers at breaking point.
Morrison’s decision to ignore warnings about looming demand spikes and logistical disruptions has resulted in empty supermarket shelves, queues for laboratory tests that snake around city blocks, vaccine booster shortages and a thriving black market in rapid antigen tests.
Most importantly, in the week since Djokovic’s arrival, COVID-19 has killed more Australians than the Black Saturday bushfires or the Bali bombings.
Each time Djokovic leads the news, there are high-fives in the Prime Minister’s Office. At every stage, the government’s strategists have attempted to squeeze more life out of this giant distraction. No matter the cost to Australia’s reputation.
Otherwise, why wouldn’t Immigration Minister Alex Hawke have made his determination on Djokovic by now, rather than government sources leaking out each day that his decision may be imminent?
The government’s public brawl over whether to deport Djokovic is a national and international embarrassment. It suggests to the world that we are not a country of laws, administered by an impartial and predictable legal system, but instead some sort of latter-day banana republic where decisions are made by politicians according to their personal whims.
Did Djokovic’s advocates in the government – such as Warren Entsch, Dave Sharma and John Alexander – think the world would ignore the politically charged hypocrisy of letting the world’s top male player compete while lesser-known female Czech player Renata Voráčová was chased down and deported?
And did Djokovic’s critics think it reflected positively on Australia’s justice system that, barely minutes after the court’s decision on Monday, Liberal MP Julian Simmonds was out on the BBC heaping pressure on his colleagues to ensure the star was swiftly kicked out?
And what about Nationals senator Matt Canavan spreading pseudoscientific nonsense about Djokovic’s “natural immunity” being far superior to the protection afforded by vaccines? How does that engender public confidence that our laws are grounded in evidence?
This is just barmy stuff. If a competent government wanted to avoid this debacle, it could easily have done so.
It was well known last year that many professional sportspeople – not just Djokovic – were extremely unlikely to embrace vaccination.
If vaccination was meant to be a condition of travel, why didn’t the government require each players’ vaccination history before issuing those visas in the first place? And certainly before allowing them to travel to Australia. The problem would have been solved.
Once Djokovic’s individual situation became clear, Morrison didn’t need to make himself the ringmaster of the political circus by beating his chest. The Prime Minister could easily have declined to reflect on the independent process because, believe it or not, the national leader has weightier matters to deal with on the current pandemic than a single unvaccinated tourist.
When we look back on this period of history, I suspect Australians would rather have had a prime minister focused on saving lives during a public health emergency than picking political fights with a tennis player – and with the active support of the Murdoch media, leading a national debate on whether Djokovic is a bad person.
Now, as we edge towards Djokovic’s likely deportation, we can expect Morrison to again puff out his chest for the Australian people to give him a medal.
But Morrison should know that prime ministers don’t get applause for cleaning up messes they themselves create; few could forget how bushfire-ravaged communities responded when he descended on their towns seeking praise for having cut short his Hawaiian holiday. It didn’t go down very well.
Sadly, the government has engineered a politically charged popularity contest between those who like Djokovic and want him to play, and those who dislike him and want to give him the boot.
This is a phoney debate that obscures the real matters at hand: That Australia must return to a proper system of public administration with a consistent, predictable and independent system of administrative law operating at arm’s length from day-to-day politics; and that Australia’s political leadership must return to the job the people expect of it in the proper management of this appalling pandemic.