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Novak Djokovic’s anti-vaccination stance. The new heresy for a new morality? 

The more secularised society becomes, the more it resembles organised religion. The saga over Novak Djokovic’s Australian visa over the past fortnight with his ultimate ejection being ordered on the grounds of good order and the public interest.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used his discretionary power to revoke Djokovic’s visa days after a court overturned the earlier cancellation.

“Today I exercised my power under section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel the visa held by Mr Novak Djokovic on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so,” the minister said in a statement.

The government “is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hawke said.

Hawke said he accepted Djokovic’s recent Covid-19 infection meant he was a “negligible risk to those around him”, but that he was “perceived by some as a talisman of a community of anti-vaccine sentiment”.

“I consider that Mr Djokovic’s ongoing presence in Australia 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 which may themselves be a source of community transmission … Having regard to … Mr Djokovic’s conduct after receiving a positive Covid-19 result, his publicly stated views, as well as his unvaccinated status, I consider that his ongoing presence in Australia may encourage other people to disregard or act inconsistently with public health advice and policies in Australia.”

The sovereignty of the Australian state, and its internal legislation, empowers the Immigration Minister to do just this, with very broad-ranging legislation sitting in the hands of the Minister. The judge in the appeals court probably rightly carried out his duty to enforce the law, irrespective of the reasons behind the decision. Whether such discretionary power in the hands of a Minister is reflective of a society ordered by men rather than laws, is a different question.

However, the defence of the Minister, as one of protecting public order (public interest and good order) is not new. It is engrained not only in legislation in most countries, ‘preventing disorder’ is one of the most common phrases in the European Convention on Human Rights, and a caveat to a large number of the so-called human rights.

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

This is the same human rights convention that protects human rights by allowing liberty to be taken away, most notably, for alcoholics, for the prevention of the spreading of infectious diseases, of persons of unsound mind, alcoholics or drug addicts or vagrants; 

More pertinently to this case:

An alien may be expelled before the exercise of his rights under paragraph 1.(a), (b) and (c) of this Article, when such expulsion is necessary in the interests of public order or is grounded on reasons of national security.

Such caveats are exemplary of the political accommodation of civil liberties that have been inserted into celebrated human rights treaties.

In the Djokovic case, however, the idea stretches further. The tennis player himself is not considered to be a direct threat to public order – there was no suspicion that he was intending to start rioting or fomenting an insurrection. His charge is more akin to the oft-maligned religious concern with ‘giving scandal’.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behaviour which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbour’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death.”

Although such a charge in modern liberal democracies would be scorned as anachronistic, in the absolutism of modern Australia – supported by many across Europe – the idea that Djokovic, by his presence, with his crazy ideas and bad attitude, may lead others to do what is effectively, if not so described, evil in the eyes of the Australian government.

The cultish adherence to the public health message, the need to protect the Australian border – as reiterated by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison upon the rejection of Djokovic’s appeal – carries the same inferences as many religious narratives, only under a secular, positivistic creed.

The scandal caused may be different, the temptation of evil spoken in more modern language, but the shape of the doctrine, the fundamentalist adherence to repeated dogma, and the punishment of banishment from the fold are trends repeated in history.

For critics of religion, the modern reversion to historical behaviours in the absence of any deity ought to indicate that the problem is with man qua man rather than organised faiths, but those that are the most vocal critics of religion are currently in thrall to their own creed.

But if they were to learn the lessons of history, scapegoating of a perceived saviour has the opposite effect of that intended. By making a martyr of Djokovic, the Australian government has underlined the unreasonableness of its intractability.

It may satisfy those that are upset unfairness after nearly two of very restrictive measures (with the ultimate result of covid being rampant) of Djokovic being allowed enter Australia. For others, it just highlights the unreasonableness of the Government that it would use this discretionary power to make what appears to be a vindictive point to Djokovic for embarrassing them and to anyone else who dares to think heretically.

Dualta Roughneen

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