Interview with Chris Smith, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Trade, Tourism and Investment portfolio, Australia-China relationship, Australia-US relationship, Australian exports.
27 January 2021

Chris Smith: Well, apart from the pandemic, one of the Government’s most intractable problems right now — and I should add deficit into all of this — is this trade war with China, and the inability to make contact even with Beijing officials to at least negotiate. It is frustrating. It’s an immature way to conduct diplomacy, and extremely damaging, of course, for many of our exporters. So, late last year the Education Minister Dan Tehan was handed the poisonous Trade portfolio. He surely wouldn’t have volunteered for this. And, so, apart from trade agreements with India, the UK and others, the new Minister will be judged on whether he can patch up our relationship with China. There is one major factor now running his way — the new US President has a good relationship with Beijing. I caught up with the Minister earlier today.

[Excerpt]

Smith: Now, Minister, given our relationship with China at the moment, tell me you didn’t ask for this portfolio, you were given it?

Dan Tehan: Well, Chris, it’s a great honour to be a Minister in the Morrison Cabinet. And, look, I’m really looking forward to the challenges and opportunities in the Trade, Investment and Tourism portfolio …

Smith: … But did you ask for it, or were you given it?

Tehan: Oh, well, you know how these things work — the Prime Minister decides the make up of his Cabinet, and he spoke to me before Christmas and asked me whether I would take on this portfolio, and I said, absolutely, I’d love to, and look forward to it. And, I know it’s got challenges, but there’s opportunities there. And, you know, I’m going to take a very, very clear and concise approach to it. We’re going to be very proactive, very proactive. We’re going to be principled and, where necessary, we’ll be patient. And, it’s so important that, you know, that I do this job well and that the Government does its trade policy and investment policy and how it manages the tourism sector well, because jobs rely on it. Jobs right across the nation rely on this portfolio. And, that’s why I was keen to accept it. But, understand, there are challenges, but also enormous opportunities.

Smith: Well, that’s an understatement, the fact that there are challenges. Now, there’s a new Commerce Minister installed by Beijing. You’ve sent a letter to that new person, that new Minister. Have you had a reply at all, in any form?

Tehan: No, I haven’t had a reply, but it only went a week or so ago and was a very detailed letter. And, look, I think there are many ways that we can constructively engage with China when it comes to our commercial relationship. It’s built on extraordinary two-way trade. And, our trading relationship is very complementary. What we send to China, they need; what they send to us, you know, we need. And, our economies work very well like that. So, my hope is that we can have a constructive dialogue. And, that’s why I was very keen to write to the new Minister. He was appointed within, I think, 24 or 48 hours to my appointment. So, I see an opportunity there. But, so I’ll wait patiently for a response. And, in the meantime, we’ve got the UK free trade agreement, the EU free trade agreement to try and finalise, the relationship with India — I’d love to give real priority to that, Japan is obviously a key trading relationship, Vietnam, and, of course, the new Biden administration, which presents opportunities, as well.

Smith: Well, that was my next question. I’ve heard from agricultural officials and business people have said to me it’s exciting them that all of a sudden Joe Biden is in a position where Australia can do a deal with China a lot better. In other words, using the Americans to go in and make peace with the Chinese. Is that the plan? Have you actually had any discussion with anyone in the Biden administration about this yet?

Tehan: Well, the new trade representative in the Biden administration hasn’t been sworn in yet. That will take place over the coming days. Now once that happens then I can begin to engage with my counterpart. The way the US system works is you don’t engage until they’re sworn in. But, there are real opportunities for us with the way we engage with the Biden administration. For instance, one of the things that I think is in both nations’ national interest is that they re-engage with the CPTPP. That’s that very good trade agreement for the Pacific that the US were engaged in, but then subsequently withdrew. So, that’s a great way we can get them engaged. Things like APEC and the World Trade Organization — there’s opportunities there to get the Biden administration engaged there. And, obviously, China is a key member of the WTO, wants to see reform there. APEC brings China and the US together, along with Australia and New Zealand and other Asia Pacific nations. So, there are opportunities there in the way that we engage with the Biden administration. And, that will be something that I’ll really look forward to engaging with them on.

Smith: I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the wine industry and also some of the smaller produce industries, and they are saying that they are hopping on planes and going over to create conversations with other governments and officials about finding new markets. How much help are they getting from the Federal Government? And, can you give us an example of new lines of communication developing with maybe Vietnam, India, etcetera?

Tehan: Absolutely. Look, we want to be there for our exporters as they explore as many markets as they possibly can. And, just before Christmas — I think it was the first announcement that I made — was over $70 million to help facilitate our exporters be able to get access to new markets. And, we’ve already seen one example of that where, for the first time, we’ve got a trial shipment of barley into Mexico to help with their beer making there. And, the real hope is that now we’ve got that trial shipment done, it was successful, that we’re now going to see other shipments follow of our barley into Mexico. So, there are numerous examples there, and that’s something that I really want to proactively work on, because the more diversity in our markets, the better it is, because when it comes to trading commodities, as we all know, markets go up and down, commodity prices go up and down. So, the more eggs you’ve got in your basket, and in different baskets, the better it is.

Smith: And, if the Commerce Minister in Beijing were to ring you this afternoon and say to you, hello, would you be able to reply in Chinese, hello?

Tehan: Look, what I would do is I’d make sure that the reply was polite, and I would make sure that, you know, we investigated all the constructive ways that we can engage, so I must say …

Smith: … Ni hao, you’ve got to learn ni hao, Dan Tehan. Ni hao is the term.

Tehan: It is the term. But, I must say, my Chinese isn’t very fluent, and I’ll just look, make sure that I can get a translator very quickly who will be able to help me. Spanish is the language that I used to speak about 20 years ago when I was a diplomat. And, I’m looking forward to trying to improve, once again, my Spanish speaking, but it was always still done with a strong Australian accent. So, I don’t think that’s going to change with the way I talk.

Smith: Okay. I hope the call eventually comes. We look forward to that. Good luck with the new portfolio and thank you very much for your time.

Tehan: Always a pleasure, Chris, and take care.

[End of excerpt]

Smith: He is a good man. He’ll do a pretty good job.

Media enquiries

  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555