Hypocrisy, ‘God powers’ and Djokovic

Refugees have been imprisoned in the Park Hotel for years. Photo: Refugee Action Collective Victoria

Novak Djokovic was booted out of Australia on January 15 after federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used a special power to overturn a Federal Circuit Court decision which had said the world’s top tennis player had followed the rules.

The Serbian tennis player, who had made it known he did not support COVID-19 vaccines, had his visa cancelled for a second time by the minister who used what refugee activists and human rights lawyers describe as “God powers”.

Djokovic flew into Australia on January 5, was detained at the airport for eight hours before his visa was cancelled on the grounds that he did not have a valid medical exemption to the requirement that everyone entering the country be vaccinated against COVID-19.

His visa had been reinstated on January 10 by Judge Anthony Kelly who ruled that there had been a lack of procedural fairness by Border Force.

 to revoke Djokovic’s visa, however, was entirely different. He said “Djokovic’s ongoing presence in Australia may lead to an increase in anti-vaccination sentiment … potentially leading to an increase in civil unrest”.

At the same time he accepted that Djokovic was a “negligible risk to those around him”.

Opinion polls showed that cancelling Djokovic’s visa was popular. But the saga should underscore just how authoritarian the immigration minister’s powers are. It should also show up the federal government’s hypocritical stand towards those it claims could increase “civil unrest”.

Cancelling the visas of people on the basis of their political views has happened before. Will the next Palestinian activist or anti-war or union activist who visits from overseas be considered someone who could stir civil unrest and face the same consequence?

Greg Barnes from the Australian Lawyers Alliance used a fictitious example of a film star, or a singer, with strong views about the US-Australia alliance and who encouraged people to protest. “On the basis of this sort of reasoning, a minister could say: ‘Well, I’m not going to allow you into the country because you’ve got a very high profile and you may express views and become a lightning rod for people opposed to the US-Australian alliance’.”

The Djokovic case has highlighted the immigration minister’s authoritarian powers. Since the first Immigration Restriction Act 1901, the minister has had wide discretion to grant and cancel visas. There was an attempt to remove these powers in 1989 by the Labor government under Bob Hawke but it failed. Since then, the immigration minister’s powers have been expanded.

The “God powers” were intended to be used in a humanitarian way, but Liberal immigration ministers don’t know the meaning of the word.

In 2015, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton intervened to grant visas to two au pairs, who arrived on tourist visas and were facing deportation at the airport.

In 2005, Immigration minister Amanda Vanstone intervened to grant a suspected mafia figure a visa after his supporters donated to the Liberal Party and four Liberal MPs made representations about his case.

In 2004, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock granted visas to people represented by a travel agent who had donated money to the Liberal Party — the so-called “cash for visas” scandal.

Minister Hawke has not used his power to grant a visa to the Murugappan family, who face being deported to danger in Sri Lanka, or the Park Hotel refugees. Instead, refugees are treated like criminals and genuine refugees can fail the narrow definitions.

In the majority of cases immigration ministers have refused to step in. By contast, Hawke moved at the speed of light for the elite tennis player.

Ministerial powers to cancel visas were expanded in 2014 when Scott Morrison was the immigration minister. At airports, people are often given as little as 10 minutes to explain why their visa should not be cancelled. Visas are often cancelled as a way of pre-empting claims for asylum from those coming in from war-torn countries. These visa cancellations are done in secret and, usually, not able to be challenged.

The immigration minister also has the ability to cancel visas on character grounds. Refugees and asylum seekers living in the community have been picked up for traffic offences only to find themselves back in detention with their visas cancelled, facing deportation.

Some people, who have lived a majority of their lives here, have had their visas cancelled after being convicted of an offence and serving 12 months in jail. Others have had their visas cancelled and deported despite not having lived for long in their birth country, not speaking the language and suffering a mental illness.

No matter what we think of Djokovic’s born-to-rule attitude, the government’s arbitrary and discriminatory use of its harsh border policies is not in our broader democratic interest.

The next person the immigration minister decides to use his God powers on won’t have the Djokovic’s resources to mount a legal challenge and they may well be deported to be tortured, disappeared or to their death.

[Sue Bolton is a member of the  national executive.]