The Australian public have felt there’s one rule for the rich and another for the rest throughout the pandemic | Clive Hamilton and Myra Hamilton

The furious public reaction to what many perceived as special treatment afforded to tennis star Novak Djokovic comes after two years of mounting resentment, fuelled by stories of very wealthy people and celebrities being granted exemptions from coronavirus rules.

Djokovic travelled to Australia on Wednesday, having apparently secured a medical exemptions from Tennis Australia and the Victorian Government, only to have his visa cancelled on arrival over what the Australian Border Force “failed to provide appropriate evidence” to support his exemption from a requirement to be double vaccinated against Covid. It is not known on what grounds Djokovic, who has previously expressed scepticism about covid vaccines, had sought an exemption.

From the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 the refrain of governments asking for public cooperation has been “we are all in this together”, and most Australians took the slogan to heart, dutifully following instructions.

Yet people began to see evidence that some of those with wealth and influence did not appear to behave as if they were “in this” with everyone else. Sceptics referred to the unity refrain as “a fantasy narrative” that ignored social inequalities that were, in fact, exacerbated by the crisis.

For example, in May 2021, a news story in the Sydney Morning Herald began: “Elite sportspeople and their families are being granted special exemptions to travel into Australia while thousands of citizens remain stranded, sparking claims of unfair treatment for the rich and famous.”

The story attracted scores of reader comments complaining of the unfairness of the system, including a number along the lines of: “You don’t become super wealthy so you can hang around in queues with poor people.”

Many other stories have been published about people with wealth and influence avoiding lockdowns, quarantine requirements, or vaccine queues.

Reactions to these stories indicate a public perception that elites have been enjoying freedoms denied to the vast majority who do not share their privileged status.

Resentment is widespread, but how widespread? To find out, we commissioned a national survey of a representative sample of Australian adults. Conducted by Omnipoll in early December 2021, the results shed new light on public beliefs about the fairness of the implementation of Covid-related rules.

When we asked whether wealthy people and celebrities found ways to get around Covid lockdown rules, four out of five (80%) agreed, with 40% strongly agreeing and only 12% disagreeing. Younger adults were more likely to agree (87%).

We then asked whether it’s OK to use one’s connections to get around Covid lockdown rules. 82% disagreed (66% strongly). Older people (those over 50) are significantly more likely to object to people exploiting their connections (about 90% versus 75% of those under 35).

Resentment, the feeling that some people are getting an undeserved advantage, has long been recognised as a powerful political emotion. In recent times, its dangers have received a great deal of attention in the United States. A popular view that elites are getting special treatment can be politically volatile and bring social fracturing, with long-lasting effects.

The strong public reaction to Novak Djokovic’s perceived “special treatment” seems to have spooked both the federal and Victorian governments into reversing their positions and taking a harder line.

And well they might. Our survey asked Australians whether they feel angry or resentful when wealthy people and celebrities receive special treatment. Four out of five (80%) report that they do feel angry or resentful at times, with 21% feeling it often, 28% sometimes, and 31% occasionally.

It has frequently, perhaps too frequently, been said that Australia is an egalitarian society that gives a fair go to all. A leading symbol of that egalitarianism is Australian’s universal healthcare system. Social attitudes research consistently shows strong support for equal access for all when it comes to health services.

Public faith in universal access appears to have taken a battering as a result of the elastic application of rules and restrictions during the Covid health crisis.

We asked our survey respondents which one of the following two statements better reflects their opinion on the application of rules in general: “In Australia, there’s one rule for the rich and another rule for the rest,” or “Overall, the rules are applied fairly in Australia.” 51% chose the first and 37% nominated the second, while 12% couldn’t say.

Male, university-educated, fully employed people with higher incomes living in capital cities are somewhat more likely to believe that, overall, the rules are applied fairly in Australia.

In other words, those who are beneficiaries of the system are somewhat more likely to say the rules are applied fairly, while women, lower-income people and those who did not go to university are more inclined to believe that there’s one rule for the rich and another rule for the rest.

The Djokovic case has again brought this resentment to the surface, and it appears to cross political and demographic boundaries. A typical reader response to reports of the exemption was, “This is an absolute insult to every single vaccinated person in Australia.” Comments and polls in several major news outlets suggest overwhelming support for the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa.

When Australians are struggling to get through hard times, it’s galling for a wealthy sports star to be exempted from the country’s vaccination rules – more so for the many Australians still separated from loved ones abroad due to vaccination-based visa regulations.

Resentment, perhaps “the dominant mood of our age,” can have corrosive political effects. If the pathway out of the pandemic depends on the commitment of Australians to the collective enterprise, then perceptions that a wealthy few are exempted from the rules can only erode personal commitment to the public good.

Governments seen to sanction violations of the social contract can expect to be punished at polling time.

Tin ears lose elections.

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