Serbia’s Prime Minister has asked Scott Morrison for more direct information on the unfolding drama around Novak Djokovic’s stay in Australia, with the federal government still weighing up whether to deport the unvaccinated tennis star.
The world tennis peak body has warned the visa and border bungle has been “damaging on all fronts”, while the Labor opposition claims the episode makes Australia look like “a pack of idiots” on the world stage.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Morrison spoke to Serbian leader Ana Brnabic. Serbian broadcaster RTS said Ms Brnabic asked Mr Morrison to ensure Djokovic was treated with dignity ahead of the Australian Open tournament next week and following Monday’s Federal Court visa ruling.
“The [Serbian] prime minister especially emphasised the importance of the conditions for training and physical preparation for the upcoming competition, considering that Novak Djokovic was not allowed to train in the previous days, and the tournament in Melbourne starts this weekend,” RTS reported.
“The prime minister also asked [Mr] Morrison to be in direct contact in the coming days and for all information to be exchanged directly between the government of Serbia and the government of Australia.”
Mr Morrison’s office described the call as “constructive”.
“The PM explained our non-discriminatory border policy and its role in protecting Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic,” an Australian readout of the call said.
Despite Monday court’s ruling overturning the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa and allowing him to remain in Australia, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke still has the power to cancel the visa again.
Last week, Mr Morrison defended the cancellation, saying “rules are rules” and “if you’re not double-vaccinated and you’re not an Australian resident or citizen, well, you can’t come”.
That strong endorsement threatens to turn the incident into a political grenade.
The New Daily contacted Mr Hawke’s office for comment. A spokesman said on Monday that the minister was “currently considering the matter and the process remains ongoing”.
In an interview with the ABC, retiring Liberal MP and former tennis pro John Alexander called for the government to allow Djokovic to play in Melbourne. Another Coalition backbencher, Julian Simmonds, told the BBC that he’d like the visa to be cancelled.
“The idea an unvaccinated celebrity could come without quarantine rubs people the wrong way,” Mr Simmonds said.
In Serbia, Djokovic’s family held a press conference overnight, where they claimed his temporary detention was “torture” and described his court victory as “the biggest win in his career”.
However, the event was cut short when journalists asked about images of the star at public events in mid-December, days after he claimed to have tested positive for COVID – the basis of his application for an exemption to enter Australia.
Another potential wrinkle in Djokovic’s bid to play in Melbourne is newly released documents showing he answered “no” to questions on his Australian travel declaration forms about travelling internationally within the previous 14 days. However, the Monte Carlo-based player was photographed playing tennis in Serbia on Christmas Day, and training in Spain on January 2 – both within the 14-day window.
The declaration notes that giving false or misleading information is a serious offence, while civil penalties are also possible.
Questions still remain about how the Djokovic visa bungle occurred, with differing stories between the Victorian and federal governments, and Tennis Australia. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said it was “entirely a matter for the federal government”.
“The issue of who gets into the country and their vaccination status is not an issue for state governments. I don’t issue visas, the Commonwealth government does that,” he said on Tuesday.
“We have not sought to convince the Commonwealth government to allow anyone else. Quite the opposite.”
The ATP, the peak body for men’s tennis, said in a statement on Monday that the episode had been “damaging on all fronts, including for Novak’s wellbeing and preparation for the Australian Open”.
“Complications in recent days related to player entry into Australia have, however, highlighted the need for clearer understanding, communication and application of the rules,” it said.
The Labor opposition also hammered the Coalition about the saga on Tuesday.
“If [Djokovic] gets deported, it does incredible damage to Australia. If he gets to stay, it does incredible damage to our tough border laws and is a real insult to the Australians who did the hard work of lockdowns and vaccination,” shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally said.
“The Morrison government looks like a pack of idiots that couldn’t organise a meat tray at the local raffle.”
Opposition figures also leaned into tennis puns to slam the government. Backbencher Julian Hill claimed Mr Morrison “never has his eye on the ball” and Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused the Coalition of “the grand slam of pandemic failures”.
“This has been botched completely by the Australian government,” Mr Albanese said.
“This has caused a great international embarrassment for Australia.”