What impact will the Djokovic vaccination drama have on Brand Australia?

The Djokovic and Australian visa/vaccination story has transcended the world of sport and dominated global news feeds for the past week.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There are no winners emerging from a situation that has been handled poorly on all sides – the Australian Federal Government, the Victorian State government (the Australian Open tennis tournament will be held in Melbourne, Victoria, from 17 January), Tennis Australia and Djokovic himself – all this could have been avoided had the world’s number-one men’s player got himself vaccinated.

But the Australian Government has also appeared in disarray, having been forced to defend its evolving policies on COVID-19.

I spent much of the past two years living and working in Australia, moving there six months before the pandemic struck.

Initially Australians loved the fact that the border was closed and that they weren’t going to let COVID-19 in no matter what.

However, it allowed domestic states in Australia to take back much control from the Federal Government in Canberra, including when to lock down, and open and close their state borders.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has given the impression to the world that this was a country closed to the outside world.

Even once its citizens were fully vaccinated and borders for resident Australians began to open again, restrictions on global travellers remained tight, with a clear message to incoming sportspeople competing in Australia that they had to be fully vaccinated.

And then, for some reason, exemptions started to be made, apparently unilaterally, which was the beginning of the Djokovic saga.

So what impact will all this have on ‘Brand Australia’?

Despite having a population of 27 million, the country has long punched above its weight with strong values that are easy to articulate and visualise, given its extraordinary landscapes, climate and geography.

We have also seen some excellent international marketing campaigns over the years expressing these values. The latest global platform from Tourism Australia – 'There’s nothing like Australia' – feels authentic and plays on the huge diversity of the country across its 7.7 million square kilometres.

While some external perceptions of Aussies are about being arrogant and brash, for me there is an underlying culture that is open, direct and straightforward.

I loved hearing phrases such as "no worries" and "too easy" hundreds of times a day expressing values that live and breathe in Australian daily life.

Yet those values have taken a severe dent in the last few months. Just as borders were opening up, the Omicron wave began tearing through the states at a rate of knots.

But Djokovic arriving at Melbourne airport last week, and the subsequent dispute over his visa and alleged exemptions, felt like the straw that broke the kangaroo’s back.

It shone a light on all the domestic and federal border issues Australia has been experiencing and how none of the parties involved seems to be talking to the other for the common good.

Pre-COVID-19, in 2019, there were over 8.7m visitors to the country, spending over AU$45bn. Fast forward to 2021 and only 150,000 visitors came, spending a mere AU$1.3bn.

Australia needs to take a good look at itself and get back to what it is brilliant at. It certainly has sporting events that are brilliantly run, the AO being one of the very best.

Let’s hope politics doesn’t get in the way of people all over the world thinking about visiting this beautiful, friendly country again.

Steve Martin is global chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. He was based in Australia for two years until recently returning to HQ in London.

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