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Unvaccinated Djokovic still could be deported from Australia

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm A Martinez.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin. Novak Djokovic is allowed to stay in Australia and play in the Australian Open, at least for now. This is after immigration officials pulled the tennis star's visa last week following his arrival in country. They said Djokovic, who is unvaccinated against COVID, does not qualify for an exemption to a rule that non-citizens have to be fully vaccinated. On Monday, a federal judge overruled that move, restoring his visa, but that may not be the end of the legal battle. We are joined by Melbourne journalist Elizabeth Kulas. Elizabeth, thanks for being here to help us sort all this out.

ELIZABETH KULAS, BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: OK. What exactly did the federal judge decide?

KULAS: So the ruling yesterday was not about whether the exemption that Djokovic had initially sought to come into the country - it was not about whether that was valid or not. That remains a kind of open question. But yesterday's review was kind of more pressing. This is, was the decision to cancel Djokovic's visa upon arrival into Australia - was that decision made fairly or not? And the Federal Circuit Court judge, Anthony Kelly, ruled, no, that it was not fair.

His focus yesterday was on the early morning immigration interview that Djokovic was subject to when he arrived into the country last week. And initially, Djokovic was told that he would have until 8:30 that morning to respond to the government's intention to cancel his visa. But instead, he was pressed much earlier for a response, around 6 a.m., and the visa was canceled just after 7:30. And in the end, Judge Kelly ruled that Djokovic should have been given that full amount of time to consult lawyers to respond to this. And so the decision to cancel his visa was quashed. And within about a half hour of that ruling, he was released from immigration detention.

MARTIN: I mean, is the government just going to let that lie? Do they have room to step back in?

KULAS: Well, yeah, this is the open question. The immigration minister does have personal discretion here. He has powers under another section of the Migration Act. And a spokesperson for the minister yesterday, and again today, made it clear that this is being actively considered again. This is an open and ongoing process, and there is still room for this visa to be canceled on another batch - on different grounds than initially.

MARTIN: Even though the judge ruled otherwise. OK, so Australians are facing all these strict COVID restrictions. What has been the public's reacting to this - reaction to this ruling?

KULAS: Yeah, I think this is a city where we endured one of the longest lockdowns anywhere in the world. Ninety-three percent of adults are fully vaccinated. There's not a huge amount of sympathy for someone who has had 12-plus months to be vaccinated and has chosen not to do that. Also, the timeline that Djokovic supplied to the immigration department to apply for this visa is now being kind of picked apart. He was - he tested positive to COVID in the middle of December, and social media shows that the very next day he was out and about. He was at events. He was posing with children. He was maskless. And so I think there is a sense here of whether there was personal responsibility taken for public health.

MARTIN: So COVID and related restrictions is a big kind of political football here in the U.S. It has such a political element. Is that the case in Australia? I mean, the prime minister's government is seeking reelection in May, right?

KULAS: Very much. I mean, this is a difficult moment for the entire country, and almost the entire country is experiencing a huge wave of infections driven by omicron. The supply of rapid tests is extremely limited at the moment, and the hospital system is extremely stretched. And so certainly this is a very difficult thing in the lead-up to an election that will be held likely in May. And I think the politics here is a bit more about a strong cultural belief. You know, does an elite athlete get treated the same way as anyone else? That seems to be the question. And that's an ethos that runs very deeply here. And I think if the government had allowed an exemption for Djokovic...

MARTIN: Yeah.

KULAS: ...Without scrutiny, it could have been quite unpopular.

MARTIN: OK. The Australian Open starts Monday. We'll see if he's there. Reporter Elizabeth Kulas - you hear her on NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE STANCE BROTHERS' "MINOR MINOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.