Djokovic Saga Damages Australian PM Morrison Before Election
(Bloomberg) -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stumbled into a losing fight with tennis superstar Novak Djokovic just months before a national election.
Morrison last week strongly defended his government’s firm stance against the world’s top male tennis player after Djokovic claimed a medical exemption to bypass a vaccine requirement to enter Australia, saying “rules are rules and there are no special cases.” A federal court on Monday disagreed, calling the circumstances Djokovic encountered “unreasonable” and ordering his release from detention.
Now Morrison’s government is weighing whether to use discretionary powers to cancel the tennis star’s visa and deport him to Serbia. At this point, however, the political damage is done: The court ruling has undermined Morrison’s efforts to show he’s properly managing the crisis just as it disrupts life again for Australian voters, who are struggling to get access to rapid antigen testing kits and finding shortages of meat and other goods at grocery stores.
The Djokovic saga has reinforced the impression that Morrison “hasn’t got his house in order” and it could cost him votes if it drags on, said John Warhurst, an emeritus professor at the Australian National University who has researched the nation’s politics for decades.
“It doesn’t look like someone who is in control of the situation,” Warhurst said of the prime minister. “It looks messy and I think that runs the risk of running against him. He’s now paddling hard to keep up.”
Morrison declined to comment on Djokovic’s visa during a press briefing on Thursday and doubled down on Australia’s tough immigration policy, saying it hasn’t changed and unvaccinated visitors need to have a valid medical exemption.
“Our border protection policies have been central to the government’s achievements,” he said in Canberra. Australia has one of the lowest death rates, strongest economies and highest vaccination rates in the world because of this, he added.
While there has been no significant polling so far in 2022, Morrison had already been struggling to gain traction with voters heading into the Christmas break. The latest stumbles have increased the odds the next election will be held closer to May 21, the latest possible date according to Australian laws.
Newspoll, Australia’s most closely-watched political survey, had Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition trailing the main opposition Labor Party by six percentage points on Dec. 5. Essential Research placed Morrison’s approval rating in December at 46%, the lowest since March 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
Morrison has defied the polls before, notably with a surprise triumph in the 2019 election after consistently trailing in public opinion surveys. Although his party trails Labor, the prime minister is still more popular than opposition leader Anthony Albanese, whose approval rating stood at 40% in December in the Essential poll.
Still, the national mood appears to be souring again as a rapid surge of Covid-19 cases across Australia shines a spotlight on bread-and-butter issues that have determined election outcomes in the past.
Infection rates have climbed to the highest point since the pandemic began, with the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases on Wednesday reaching one million. Morrison’s government also held crisis talks that day to address the empty shelves in supermarkets across the nation of 26 million people.
In the initial stages of the pandemic back in 2020, Morrison’s poll numbers had skyrocketed when Australia pursued a strict Covid Zero policy, allowing citizens to enjoy reasonably normal lives while other countries including the U.S. and the U.K. saw soaring infection rates.
But the emergence of the delta variant last year led to long lockdowns in Australia’s major cities, some of the world’s toughest Covid restrictions. And now omicron is further testing the patience of average citizens in Australia, where more than 90% of the adults are fully vaccinated.
‘Too Little, Too Late’
At first, the Djokovic case appeared to play to Morrison’s traditional political strengths. He took a hardline position defending Australia’s borders when he was immigration minister in 2013 and 2014, and helped design harsher border policies that involved turning back ships filled with asylum seekers.
Yet the court ruling has provided more ammunition for the opposition Labor Party to attack the government’s handling of the pandemic. Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally described the incident as a “border debacle.”
“It’s not as if the Australian Open is a surprise event,” she said in a statement this week. “Despite having months to plan for players to arrive, Mr. Morrison once again left it too little, too late.”
Morrison hasn’t spoken extensively on the judge’s ruling to let Djokovic remain in the country. But he held a phone call with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on Tuesday in which he insisted Australia’s border policy was “non-discriminatory,” according to a readout from Morrison’s office.
Djokovic’s fate remains unclear. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has the ability to cancel any visitor’s visa and deport them, and Australian media reported this week that a discrepancy on Djokovic’s travel declaration was under investigation. Australia’s Border Force said providing false or misleading documentation “can lead to visa cancellation and/or attract penalties, including under criminal law.”
But Djokovic has his supporters, even among those in the ruling coalition. Former Australian tennis star John Alexander, now a member of Morrison’s Liberal Party, said that Djokovic didn’t appear to present an “unreasonable health risk to Australia” and urged Hawke to avoid deporting him.
“Retaining the Australian Open as a grand slam event I would argue is in our national interest,” Alexander said in a Facebook post. He added that the minister’s powers were intended to be used against criminals, “not designed to assist in dealing with a potential political problem of the day.”
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