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Djokovic case highlights public service collaboration failures

Abul Rizvi is a member of a walking club of 80 former Immigration officials who take in Canberra’s scenery while catching up on the latest news every month. When these experienced public servants met for their walk and talk in January, however, they only wanted to discuss one thing – Novak Djokovic – and it wasn’t the Serbian star’s two-handed backhand. 

Rizvi, a former Immigration deputy secretary, says they all wanted to know why Djokovic wasn’t placed on the ‘MAL’, or movement alert list, after applying for this visa. 

“Whenever you know of a potentially controversial visa applicant coming up, you put them on the MAL,” says Rizvi, who held senior roles in Immigration for over a decade to 2007. “It means Canberra is alerted and the application can be handled sensitively. It would appear Mr Djokovic was not put on the list because, if he had, somebody would have presumably done something about it.”

Everyone around the globe knows what happened to the world’s top-ranked tennis player, who hoped to defend his Australian Open title in January. After obtaining a visa from the federal authorities and medical exemptions to avoid quarantine, the unvaccinated Djokovic believed he was cleared to enter the country. His exemption was based on a positive COVID-19 test issued in Serbia on December 16 – a “contraindication” expert panels established by Tennis Australia and Victoria understood to be acceptable under the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) rules.

After signalling his impending arrival on social media, Djokovic arrived at Melbourne airport on January 5. Border Force officials detained him, cancelled his visa and then escorted him to an immigration detention hotel. He subsequently launched a legal challenge and had the visa cancellation overturned because of procedural issues. Djokovic was eventually forced to leave Australia after immigration minister Alex Hawke cancelled his visa on “health and good order grounds”. Djokovic’s legal team failed to overturn this decision.

The saga embarrassed Australia on the world stage. Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabic described the decision as “scandalous” and showed “how the rule of law is … not functioning in some other countries”. 

During a senate estimates hearing six weeks later, Home Affairs confirmed an immigration official (not a computer) approved Djokovic’s visa application but didn’t put him on the MAL. First assistant secretary, immigration programs Michael Willard said Djokovic wasn’t listed because “the decision-maker formed a view that the character test was met”.

Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo said the whole episode may have been avoided if the government’s new digital passenger declaration (DPD) system was in place. “If we had a time machine and travelled back in time, a fully functional DPD with all of the parameters set to interrogate not just the declaration but supporting documents, it’s hypothetically possible, yes,” Pezzullo said. 

How it all went wrong

Rizvi is convinced that better collaboration between federal departments and their state counterparts (and the minister’s office) would have averted any crisis. He believes the public service didn’t do its job properly on at least three occasions. 

The first was not placing Djokovic on the MAL. “This is something a public servant should be doing using their own initiative,” he says.

Rizvi’s other two points revolve around a letter federal health minister Greg Hunt sent to Tennis Australia on November 29, which advised the circumstances in which incoming players could claim a COVID-19 medical exemption.

“Given Border Force was referred to in that letter, two things should have happened,” says Rizvi. “One is that Border Force would have sent an instruction to all airport staff saying: ‘Don’t accept medical exemptions from a state government at face value – you must look behind the medical exemption’. The other thing that should have happened is the Department of Home Affairs should have contacted Mr Djokovic and asked for his vaccination status. And if he had a medical exemption, what was it based on? Those things don’t appear to have happened.”

Rizvi says he’s unaware if Home Affairs officials saw Hunt’s November letter to Tennis Australia. “If they didn’t see the letter, you’d have to ask what the Department of Health was doing talking about Border Force and Home Affairs in a letter to Tennis Australia without sharing the letter with Border Force? If they did see the letter, why didn’t they act?”

The third point of potential failure, says Rizvi, depends on whether Hunt’s letter was shared with the Victorian government. “It’s possible the expert panels set up by Tennis Australia and the Victorian government were both unaware of the letter and therefore proceeded with the quarantine exception on the basis of the published ATAGI guidelines, which did not make the distinction Mr Hunt made in his letter.

“If Mr Hunt has made this decree that the ATAGI guidelines for international travel purposes are different for domestic federal purposes, did he tell the state governments? If he had told the state governments, then I think the state governments are more culpable. If he didn’t, then you’d have to ask why.”

As the furore was unfolding, acting Victoria premier Jacinta Allan indicated government officials hadn’t seen Hunt’s letter. “We wouldn’t necessarily see it,” Allan said, “but it reinforces that point that it is the commonwealth government responsible for issuing visas and how they engage in that dialogue with Tennis Australia.”

It isn’t known if ATAGI saw Hunt’s letter, either. “ATAGI may have been acting completely innocently without knowledge of what Mr Hunt had done,” says Rizvi. “Presumably, if they’d known of Mr Hunt’s letter, they would have amended their guidelines.” A Department of Health spokesperson has confirmed department officials received a copy of Hunt’s letter in November. 

Speaking at the senate estimates hearing, Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram said Tennis Australia had sought clarification from ATAGI in early November about whether prior COVID-19 was a contraindication for the purposes of medical exemption to come to Australia. “They received two replies – one from the Department of Health and one from the minister for health,” said Outram. “Both explicitly dealt with their question to say, ‘No, prior COVID-19 is not a medical reason to not have a vaccination’. So Tennis Australia, it would appear, knew that information, yet in December a doctor from Tennis Australia produced a letter that purported to be a medical certificate saying that because they’d had prior COVID-19 they were medically exempt.”

It seems the truth is out there, somewhere between the minister’s office, the departments of Health and Home Affairs, the Victorian government, Tennis Australia and one of the greatest tennis players in history.

When collaboration goes badly

“There is often this assumption that collaboration is a good thing but it’s not always positive,” says Helen Dickinson, a professor of public service research at the School of Business, UNSW Canberra. “One of my favourite definitions of collaboration is putting your mutual loathing aside so that you’ve got somebody else to blame.”

Dickinson says one of the challenges of collaboration is working out what all sides are trying to deliver. “If you’re doing really effective collaboration around a particular area, you would have all of the detail mapped out and had some of those conversations around where interests overlap. In my experience, that’s often assumed rather than worked through in detail.”

The pandemic has made public service collaboration even more fraught than usual. “It’s a challenge against a backdrop where there’s a rapidly changing context and organisations are already overstretched,” says Dickinson. “You would ordinarily think that there would have been a mapping out of processes, and there would be a process around notifying or engaging with those agencies to make sure you’re on the same page. But we’re in unprecedented times.”

Dickinson says the Djokovic situation appears to be a classic case of poor collaboration. “This often happens when organisations or agencies don’t realise how crucial another entity is to their activity,” she says. But these are the examples that tend to stand out because so much other public service collaboration goes so well.

“There are very few things that happen around us that don’t involve collaboration of some sort across different levels of government or between governments and not-for-profit or for-profit organisations. Often, we don’t notice when we have good collaboration because it works.”

Taking initiative

Rizvi says the Djokovic visa situation reflects poor pandemic planning. “It seems to me visa application processes have not been amended to take COVID into account,” he says. 

Rather than handling the vaccine status of visa applicants during the approvals stage, officials were waiting for them to arrive at the primary line before they were processed. “That might be OK while the number of international movements is a tiny fraction of what is normal – less than 1% – but as the numbers start to rise, that process doesn’t work anymore.” 

Reflecting on the Djokovic “shemozzle”, Rizvi is worried about what has become of Australia’s public service. 

“It’s become a reactive organisation that is told what to do,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be much that I can see that suggests there’s a large amount of initiative going on. There’s not a large amount of thinking ahead or risk management.”

He’s certainly sure what happened to Djokovic in January would never have occurred while he and his former colleagues walked the halls in Immigration. “Absolutely,” he says. “We would have known Mr Djokovic was going to be controversial. This was as plain as the nose on your face.”

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