Bully boy tactics-Refugees, Christine Holgate and now Novak Djokovic.

Jan 12, 2022
Djokovic and refugees
Protesters contrast Djokovic's treatment to that of asylum seekers. (Image AAP / Joel Carrett)

Outsiders might think the accounts of long-term detainees refer to policies and conditions in Kazakhstan and Belarus not in alleged fair-go Australia.

The Novak Djokovic affair sees Prime Minister Scott Morrison reverting to a familiar strongman role, insisting that he knows best, is protecting Australia and is a vigilante for borders and rules.

His claim that Djokovic knew the conditions for entry to the country is made with no sense of dignity or subtlety, his bullishness combines with his habit of blaming anyone but himself.

We should not be surprised. Chest-beating statements by another Liberal leader give cues to Morrison. Former prime minister John Howard’s posing as a strongman (‘we will decide who comes to this country and how they come’) is easily imitated.

In parliament over the Christine Holgate Australia Post controversy, Morrison saw an opportunity and calculated that the public would be impressed with his chin-out dominance. ‘If she does not wish to step aside, she can go.’ Holgate responded that Morrison’s style and language was ‘one of the worst acts of bullying I’ve ever witnessed.’

After insisting that the visa issued to Djokovic was the responsibility of the Victorian government or Tennis Australia, in Covid confusion, Morrison reminded himself that this was a Commonwealth decision. At this point his pride in the language of force to protect borders took over, and as a self-perceived brave leader he said he was there to protect citizens. Recalling his military success as a tough immigration minister, he asked the country to be vigilant.

Once again, no dignity, no acknowledgement of Home Affairs/Foreign Affairs visa paraphernalia, more the language of a vigilante than a leader.

There’s a suspicion that Morrison wanted to appear strong by making an example of the tennis number one. So he provokes all of Serbia and internationally his schoolmaster stance, ‘rules are rules’, is ridiculed.

Within this controversy lies a more serious humanitarian, human rights issue. Djokovic has been held in an improvised immigration detention centre, a five-storey, locked windows hotel which has imprisoned refugees for years. Almost 40 young men have been contained irrespective of their human rights, let alone the danger of confined space increasing the chances of contacting the Covid virus.

A touch of human rights-based respect for such powerless individuals could lessen the impression that in the tradition of a convict era, Australia loves being harsh. A placard outside that hotel pleads, ”free the refugees before Djokovic”.

We should hear the names of human beings other than Novak and I’m sure he would not mind. Thirty-two-year-old Iranian Hossein Latifi complains of this place that there is no fresh air, no opportunity for exercise, no gym. He has been confined for 10 years. Adnan Choopani complains of a lousy diet. He was detained when he was 15, nine years ago.

It is slightly helpful that publicity surrounding a sports star has drawn some attention to Australia’s indifference to the human rights of refugees, though outsiders might think the accounts of Latifi and Choopani refer to detention policies and conditions in Kazakhstan and Belarus not in alleged fair-go Australia.

Morrison had been confused about policies concerning a virus which spreads like wildfire, so he finds a distraction and reappears as a chest-beating strongman. Tennis players who were invited to play in the Australian Open were permitted to come, but were not really invited by the right hosts who really knew about conformity to vaccination requirements.

Hidden in this Djokovic controversy is the continued cruelty towards refugees whose plight is easily ignored by blaming a previous government, by claiming the priority need to protect a rich, fortunate country.

If the Prime Minister and other ministers showed more dignity in their public utterances, ceased the blame game, displayed consistent respect for international law and ended their fascination with cruel policies, Australia would have a different political culture. Chest-beating to disguise confusion, and aggressive assertions to divert attention from other policy failings, would be a blemish from the past.

In that more Homo Sapiens culture, the Djokovic controversy might not have happened, or would have been handled with dignity, perhaps with a touch of humour, even with a smattering of generosity towards really powerless people.

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