Australian politics

Anyone for tennis?

As with the fiasco around the government’s dealing with the Omicron variant of Covid-19, the media have given plenty of coverage to the inept way they have gone about Novak Djokovic's visa cancellation. On the ABC’s Breakfast program on Thursday morning sports reporter Tracey Holmes gave a 10-minute summary of the issues involved, covering both legal and political aspects, including the fact that Djokovic was caught by a change in the Commonwealth’s policy while he was in the air on his way to Australia, having completed all the necessary paperwork before he left.

Holmes refers to the points made by Abul Rizvi, former Deputy Secretary of the Immigration Department, on Monday’s 730 Program (and repeated elsewhere). It’s a flawed process that allows a visa, applied for in good faith and in compliance with requirements, to be revoked after one has arrived in Australia. If we had wanted to prohibit Djokovic from coming to Australia (there seem to have been good grounds for such a prohibition) he should not have been given a visa in the first place. It instils no confidence for our tourist or business visitors if they believe that, having filled our already tough visa requirements, they could be refused entry after having made a long and expensive journey.

No doubt Morrison saw Djokovic's case as a good political opportunity to distract from his government’s mismanagement of Covid-19, to move politics on to the Coalition-friendly ground of immigration (“We will decide who comes to this country …”), to appear tough on vaccination, and to present the Victorian Government as being inconsistent in its public health guidance. But its clever move had too many unforeseen consequences. One is led to question whether the government bothered to consult public servants in the Department of Home Affairs who could have warned them of these consequences. Or, even more worrying, is the possibility that the Department is so politicized that it has lost the administrative and policy expertise that one would expect to find in a competent immigration department.

Stan Grant has a piece on the ABC website: This spat is about more than Novak Djokovic, COVID and tennis: It's about borders and sovereignty. Grant puts the issue into its broadest context, about refugees world-wide who cannot get across borders. He also reminds us that over the last couple of years, when most Australians were subject to strong travel restrictions, the Morrison government granted many travel exemptions for the powerful and privileged. (But because there wasn’t an election in 2020 or 2021 the government didn’t have to worry about the impression created by giving a few breaks to its mates.)

Many will be enjoying the Schadenfreude of seeing the Morrison government getting itself into a mess, once again, in a situation where the only direct victim of its incompetence is an over-privileged and unpopular sportsperson. There was something almost amusing in seeing three groups of demonstrators outside the detention hotel on Monday night – Serbian-Australians, anti-vaxxers, and supporters of detained asylum-seekers – all with very different causes but brought to the same spot by Morrison’s ineptitude and political opportunism. But there has been damage to our national standing. The only good to have come out of this chaos is that the world has been reminded, once again, of Australia’s brutal treatment of refugees.

The oddest job on the public payroll

Crispin Hull asks whether Australia needs a governor-general. Admittedly the incumbent GG doesn’t seem to do much, but why has he allowed Morrison to take on so many functions that in most countries would be performed by a president or constitutional monarch?

Constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey throws some light on how previous GGs have busied themselves. In her Conversation contribution At long last, we can tear open the queen’s secret letters with Australia’s governors-general she explains how the High Court’s judgement relating to John Kerr’s correspondence with the Queen of England has led to the public release of the correspondence of other GGs. “To today’s eyes, the correspondence is often cloying and obsequious in its formality and deference”, she writes. They have mainly engaged in symbolic issues such as use of the British national anthem God Save the Queen[1].

More seriously, John Kerr is not the only GG to have discussed the GG’s reserve powers with Buckingham Palace. At least one other GG, faced with the possibility of having to appoint a prime minister following a parliamentary vote of no confidence, was prepared to consult with the head of state of a foreign country about what to do.

Twomey’s analysis reinforces the need for an Australian head of state, holding a position respected by the population. That case is supported by Morrison’s having taken to himself many functions that would properly attach to the head of state. Surely we do not want to follow the American example where the positions of head of state and head of executive government are held by the same person.

1. The British don’t hold sole rights to the tune; it’s shared with Imperial Germany Heil dir im Siegerkranz and the USA My country ‘tis of thee.

The Coalition’s war on learning

Sports grants and car parks are not the only programs where ministers have been overriding expert consideration of benefits and costs. On Christmas Eve acting Education Minister Stuart Roberts decided that he would override Australian Research Council evaluations of six “Discovery” projects, without giving any more than superficial reasons for his decisions.

Writing in The ConversationARC grants: if Australia wants to tackle the biggest issues, politicians need to stop meddling with basic research – Toby Walsh of the University of New South Wales points out that the minister’s decision to override the ARC recommendations involves substituting a gut feeling (or a partisan prejudice) for the process used by the ARC.

This ARC process is rigorous and highly competitive, and has been made more so since 2018 when a national-interest test was introduced, in response to previous Liberal Party meddling with ARC decisions. This latest interference has led to 63 researchers writing an open letter to the government protesting against political interference in the allocation of research funding (and against the Minister’s sneaky method of making his decision on Christmas Eve), and re-asserting the case for basic research. To quote from that letter:

Whether it be the test of "national interest" or an excessive focus on a sector like manufacturing, research funding in Australia is becoming political and short sighted. The best return comes from letting researchers focus on curiosity driven research. This has given us mRNA vaccines, the laser, and many other inventions that have lifted the quality of our lives.

On the ABC’s Breakfast program Lynette Russell of Monash University describes the rigour and conservatism involved in assessing ARC applications for grants. She is not sure why the minister interfered: he would have had no more than a brief summary of the projects. She points out that all six rejected projects happen to be in the humanities, and that at least two of them (climate change and our relationship with China) touch on sensitive issues for the Coalition, who seem to be afraid of their ideas being subject to the tough test of academic scrutiny. Or perhaps the minister’s interference is simply another example of the Coalition’s hatred of learning, as demonstrated by their shoddy treatment of universities during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Academics criticise government for “political and shortsighted” decisions to veto research grants. (7 minutes)


Pollsters tend to be quiet around this season. William Bowe’s Poll Bludger has some state and gender disaggregations of Newspoll results from polls conducted over the October to December period. They confirm the general trend to Labor, particularly among women and younger voters. It also appears that Labor is regaining support among those with low incomes. The polls on which these disaggregations are based were conducted before the chaotic parliamentary session in December and before there was any awareness of the Omicron wave of Covid-19.

Bowe also draws our attention to a Morning Consult poll of people’s approval of government leaders in 13 democracies, including Australia. Their poll, published on January 6, shows India’s Narendra Modi in top place (72 percent), with Britain’s Boris Johnson in bottom place (32 percent) – and this was before revelations of his BYOG party hit the press! Morrison scores only 43 percent approval, and most revealing is a chart showing his steady decline in approval, from a high point in May 2020 (when Covid-19 had recently reached our shores and we were pursuing a policy of elimination) to the present. That’s a slide from 65 percent to 43 percent, with a mirrored rise in his disapproval rating.