Centre court or the airport? That’s what three Federal Court judges will decide for Novak Djokovic, who is likely to learn his fate within hours.
The full bench of the Federal Court sat for five hours on Sunday as lawyers for Djokovic and the federal government duelled over the tennis world No. 1’s potential impact on anti-vaccination sentiment in Australia.
The judges presiding over the extraordinary Sunday hearing will decide if his Australian visa should be reinstated retired to consider the case.
Chief Justice James Allsop said the court hoped to deliver a result by Sunday afternoon or early evening.
Djokovic brought the legal challenge after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke cancelled the star’s visa on Friday afternoon, ruling that he was a risk to “public health and good order”.
Because Djokovic is a high-profile person who’d spoken out against vaccines, his presence in Australia could excite anti-vaccination sentiment, derail Australia’s vaccination efforts and ultimately affect the health system, Mr Hawke reasoned.
But Djokovic’s lawyers on Sunday argued that Mr Hawke’s decision to cancel the visa was invalid because he’d failed to consider what would happen to anti-vaccine sentiment if Djokovic were detained and deported instead of being allowed to stay.
There was evidence that it was actually the government’s actions in cancelling Djokovic’s visa that would really stir up the anti-vaccine movement, Nicholas Wood SC argued.
Mr Wood said Mr Hawke had failed to weigh up which course of action – letting Djokovic stay, or giving him the boot – would be worse for the country’s efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible against COVID-19,.
That meant the visa cancellation was unreasonable and should be overturned, Mr Wood said.
More than 85,000 people followed the drama as the last-ditch legal effort for the star to play in next week’s Australian Open was broadcast on YouTube.
It was the second urgent court hearing for Djokovic in a week, and the second time his visa was cancelled since arriving at Melbourne Airport last week.
The argument on Sunday was a far cry from the debate in Monday’s court hearing, which concerned whether Djokovic had a medical exemption that meant he didn’t have to be vaccinated.
After the government conceded it hadn’t shown Djokovic procedural fairness when Border Force agents cancelled his visa at the airport, Mr Hawke looked at the issue himself.
He said he assumed Djokovic had recently been infected with COVID-19 and was a “negligible” risk of transmitting the disease to anybody else.
Instead, the immigration minister produced new reasons to kick the Serb out of the country. Mr Hawke found his high profile and previous statements against vaccination meant others might refuse to be vaccinated and could even lead to civil unrest.
The power the minister used to cancel the visa can only be overturned by a court in very narrow circumstances.
Djokovic watched on from his lawyers’ office in Melbourne after spending Saturday night at Melbourne’s Park Hotel, which is being used as an immigration detention centre.
The government’s lawyer, Stephen Lloyd SC, said it was clear Mr Hawke had broadly considered the consequences of his decision
Mr Wood also criticised Mr Hawke for not providing any examples of Djokovic inspiring anti-vaxxer rallies when playing tennis across the world in the past year.
He said the government had selectively quoted the tennis player and there’s not enough evidence to show he is actually anti-vaccine.