World tennis number one Novak Djokovic reacted with dignity and composure after being deported from Australia because he had not been vaccinated against Covid-19. He issued a brief statement expressing his disappointment:
“I respect the court’s ruling and I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country. I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.”
From a legal standpoint, Australia’s federal government had more than enough reasons to send Djokovic packing. All the players in the Australian Open were expected to be fully vaccinated unless they had a medical exemption. He wasn’t. Some of the information on his visa application was false.
But in the end, it was a political decision. At first Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to ignore the controversy. But as soon as it became obvious that most Australians believed that Djokovic was behaving as if he were above the law, his tune changed. Under no circumstances can an Australian politician ever be seen to be supporting a “tall poppy”.
“Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected,” Mr Morrison said. And he wasn’t alone. A newspaper poll showed that 71 percent thought that Djokovic should not be exempted from rules which require visitors to Australia to be fully vaccinated.
But it wasn’t Djokovic’s technical breaches of immigration regulations which the government used to justify the decision. Instead, immigration minister Alex Hawke used his discretion to cancel Djokovic’s visa on “health and good order grounds”.
What did this vague phrase mean? The government’s lawyers argued before the Federal Court that the presence of Djokovic in Australia would embolden the anti-vaxx movement:
[It] may lead to an increase in anti-vaccination sentiment generated in the Australian community, potentially leading to an increase in civil unrest of the kind previously experienced in Australia with rallies and protests.
The government’s legal team explained that “Mr. Djokovic’s presence would encourage people to emulate his position and that would put the health of Australians at risk.”
In other words, Novak Djokovic was deported because the government wanted to muffle Australia’s anti-vaxx movement.
In this, Australian politicians are joining politicians around the world who think that the best way to deal with their vaccine-reluctant citizens is to shame them and shut them up.
French President Emmanuel Macron: “The unvaccinated, I really want to make life shit for them … to limit, as much as possible, access to social activity. I’m not going to put them in jail, I’m not going to forcibly vaccinate them. And so you have to tell them: from January 15, you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant … you will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre, you will no longer be able to go to the cinema … When my freedom threatens that of others, I become irresponsible. An irresponsible person is no longer a citizen.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “They are extremists who don’t believe in science, they’re often misogynists, also often racists. It’s a small group that muscles in, and we have to make a choice in terms of leaders, in terms of the country. Do we tolerate these people?”
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair: “If you’re not vaccinated and you’re eligible… You’re not just irresponsible, you’re an idiot.”
You don’t have to be an anti-vaxxer to be horrified by the viciousness of these undemocratic sentiments. Of course, politicians’ off-the-cuff remarks don’t have the force of law. But they represent a deeply regressive, unliberal approach to politics which is shared by many journalists and health bureaucrats. This is the first democratic crisis we’ve faced in decades; how will politicians treat the rabble next time?
Consider this: 20 percent of the French have not been vaccinated; 17 percent of Canadians; and 10 percent of Britons – millions upon millions of people. In the minds of Macron, Trudeau and Blair, these are the new deplorables and they deserve to be marginalized, excluded, and shamed.
I am wholeheartedly in favour of vaccination; I trust the authorities who have assured me that this is the best strategy for escaping from the pandemic.
But most vaccine-resistant people have rational reasons for a very different opinion. They fear for their health; they have moral qualms; they are not convinced that vaccination is worth the risk; they don’t believe their governments’ confusing, ever-changing, and contradictory messaging; they’re worried about fertility loss.
Very few of them just want to give the government the finger. And, anyhow, since when do democracies cancel citizens just because they are jerks?
The question is not how to force 100 percent of the population to accept the government’s policy. The question, rather, is how the government will accommodate people who stubbornly resist that policy.
This is, after all, what it means to live in a liberal democracy. The roots of liberalism go back to 17th century England and its bloody religious Civil Wars. Thousands of people died because governments clung to the idea that all responsible citizens had to think the same. The opposition had to be exiled, excluded, or killed.
As Edmund Fawcett argues in Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, the English realized that there had to be a better way. Conflict was inescapable, but a democratic, parliamentary order evolved in which conflict could be tamed and sublimated. A guiding principle for the early liberals was that the state was always hungering for ways to extend its power. Liberalism resisted this by constructing institutions which created a balance of power.
The test of good government was not how it rewarded its supporters but how respectfully it treated its dissidents. As Fawcett put it, classic liberalism insisted that “there were limits to how superior power could treat and above all not mistreat people themselves, whoever they were, whatever they believed.”
And on this score Australia and other liberal democracies are in danger of failing badly. They seem to be winding the clock back on 300 years of liberalism to the era of religious absolutism – without the religion. The words “I really want to make life shit for them” could have been uttered by Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV, about the Huguenots; they sound equally ominous on the lips of the President of France’s Fifth Republic.
The real loser in the debacle is not Djokovic. It’s democracy, both here in Australia and elsewhere.