Interview - Bloomberg

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Vaccines; Australia-China trade relationship; digital regional trade agreement.
23 July 2021

Journalist: Thank-you so much for joining us, Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan. Let’s start with Covid, Alice there was just saying that your Prime Minister came out and apologised for the sluggish rollout of the vaccines; Australia has the worst rate in terms of vaccination of OECD countries. What’s the problem? Why is it so slow?

Dan Tehan: Well, we’ve had some supply issues and initially we had some Astra Zeneca on order. Obviously, for one reason or another, we weren’t able to get delivery of that. We also stood up our own home-grown processes when it comes to Astra Zeneca and our scientific body which advises us on the rollout of the vaccine advised that we would have to limit Astra Zeneca to those over 60. So that obviously put a halt on the ability to roll out the vaccine. But, right now, we have supplies of Pfizer coming into the country and we’re about to ramp up quite considerably the vaccination rollout and we are reasonably confident, or very confident, that we’ll be able to offer every Australian a vaccine by the end of the year. So, we’re about to see a massive ramp up in our vaccination rollout. We’re very hopeful that by Christmas time everyone will have been offered a vaccine who wants one.

Journalist: Because right now three states are still in lockdown, that’s correct, yes? And those will stay until you get the vaccines?

Dan Tehan: No, we’re hopeful that through those lockdowns we’ll be able to suppress the virus and reopen those states. We’ve done that successfully in the past. One of the extraordinary things about Australia is we’ve been able to keep our death numbers down to about 900, and that’s out of a population of 25 million. So, when you step back and look at how we’ve dealt with the virus, it’s been quite remarkable. But, obviously, we want to make sure that we can get those vaccination rates right up by the end of the year and begin that process of reopening.

Journalist: I want to get to your discussions on trade with the US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai. Right now you’re having a lot of tensions with China, still limited on imports and also some of them are just flat-out tariffs. The US says they’re going to be supporting you. How? How in your spar with Beijing can the US help?

Dan Tehan: Well, that’s one of the things that we’ve been discussing on my visit here. The US Administration has been very clear that they won’t leave us on the playing field alone, so we’re looking at examining ways that they can help and support us. Obviously, no country wants to be on the receiving end of economic coercion. It’s in no-one’s interest, no country’s interest, that we don’t have trading rules in place and all countries adhering to those trading rules. That’s how the global economy has benefited so much since the Second World War. So, we’re going to work together in putting new trade rules together and making sure that we’re encouraging all countries to adhere to trading rules, and a regional digital trade agreement has been made one of those priorities on my agenda here in Washington over the last two days.

Journalist: And do you find the Biden Administration wants to sign up for that?

Dan Tehan: We’ve had some very positive talks. I had over an hour with Ambassador Tai yesterday. We did discuss it again over dinner last night, and I’ve had very good meetings on the Hill, both with senators and with the house members about this. There seems to be a positive approach to bipartisanship when it comes to a digital regional trade agreement and I think that’s what we need. So, I’ve been very, very encouraged with my visit.

Journalist: Will this digital trade agreement be a precursor to potentially the United States rejoining TPP?

Dan Tehan: Well, in the end, I think there are a lot of countries in the region that would hope that that would be the case. But our view is let’s take one step at a time. Let’s create that bipartisanship for a digital trade agreement in the Indo-Pacific region and if we can take that first step then hopefully we could look at a second step, which would be CPTPP membership by the United States. But we understand the important first step potentially would be taken through a regional digital trade agreement.

Journalist: And when it comes to China and your discussions with the US, you said they don’t want to leave you on the playing field alone. Specifically, what are you asking the United States to do?

Dan Tehan: Well, for instance, be part of setting new rules in new areas, like when it comes to digital trade; look at how we can cooperate in the World Trade Organisation to deal with economic coercion. There’s just a couple of ways that we think that we can work together. Also making sure that in the committees of the WTO that we call out economic coercion when we see it because we’re not the only country that’s been on the receiving end of economic coercion. So, we want to make sure that it’s made clear to all countries that this isn’t the way to proceed, that we need to make sure that we’re working together.

Journalist: But during this, especially your exports on coal which are limited right now, the United States actually has record exports to Beijing on coal, the US is, in essence, being advanced by this tension between you and Beijing. Did you discuss that?

Dan Tehan: Well, it is one of the difficulties of dealing with economic coercion is when one country is penalised another country will benefit from that. So, that’s why we very much need to take a collective approach in calling it out – make sure that there is reputational issues at stake when countries use economic coercion. These are the types of things that we’ve got to work together on, because otherwise individual countries are targeted, and it makes it very difficult for collective action.

Journalist: BHP says that it will be years about these imports – I’m very rushed on time – do you see that? Years on this ban from China?

Dan Tehan: Well, it could be one, two, three years. That depends on the message that we can collectively send to say this isn’t the type of behaviour which will ultimately be rewarded, and it isn’t the way that the world economy will benefit from. It benefits from understanding the rules, setting the rules and everyone adhering to them.

Journalist: Australian Trade Minister, thank-you so much for joining Bloomberg Television.

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