Interview with CNBC

Subjects: Vaccination rollout; international travel restrictions; the Quad partnership and free trade agreements.
03 August 2021

Will Koulouris: I'm very pleased to be able to welcome the Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister, Dan Tehan. He's joining us live, via quarantine actually, to discuss some of these issues. Minister, thank you so much for being here.

Firstly, in terms of what we have seen in the vaccine rollout here in Australia, you know, there's been a lot of chatter from all sides when it does come to perhaps the pace of the rollout but considering that, you know, Australia had a very interesting set of circumstances – we pegged a lot of our hopes on Astra Zeneca and then we had the issues with the regulators here in Australia and, rightly or wrongly, they decided to go the route they did in terms of the over 60s. But now do we see that end of the light, I suppose, the hope that really our rollout now is going to be strong to end out the end of this year?

Dan Tehan: I really can. The ramp up in the vaccine rollout is taking place every week now, every month, and we've got more supply coming on board, both Astra Zeneca and Pfizer. And so, obviously, now it's up to the Australian people to roll their sleeves up and make sure they get a jab in the arm and that's what we're hoping to see. We've outlined a road map out of the pandemic, out of the virus, and we want to make sure that every Australian does their bit and gets vaccinated. And if we can get those vaccination rates up to 70 per cent initially then we can move to phase 2, and if we can get it up to 80 per cent then we move to phase 3 — and, at the moment, Australians are doing their job in getting vaccinated, and we've just got to make sure that that continues over the next few months.

Will Koulouris: And you've been doing your job as well. You're currently in quarantine because you had a bit of a whirlwind trip around Southeast Asia and also the United States, talking to our partners when it does come to a wide variety of issues. When it does come to trade and also, I suppose, the ongoing tensions that we're seeing with China, do you think now, though, that incrementally step by step we're starting to see, and you're starting to negotiate along with the rest of your government ministry perhaps, more of a grouping of aligned nations who are not necessarily trying to be confrontational with China but trying to group together to provide better outcomes for all of the nations in spite of some of the measures being introduced by China?

Dan Tehan: Well, look, what we want to see is all countries adhering, especially, to global trading rules and working together to set those rules and what we want to see especially in the Indo-Pacific is all countries understanding their obligations, meeting their obligations and understanding that the Indo-Pacific is now where the economic weight of the world is. And the reason we've got there is because we've had a very open, free trading environment which has benefitted all countries —and we want to make sure that all countries continue to understand that.

The last thing we want to see is economic coercion being used, because that disrupts trading flows, and that's not in the interests of the people of the Indo-Pacific, and that's the message that the Australian Government has been giving to all the countries that I've been visiting – the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister – is that we want a free and open Indo-Pacific. That's what will lead to further prosperity for right across the region. If we continue to have the economic weight of the world in the Indo-Pacific, making sure that we've set the trade rules and that we adhere to the trade rules will be the absolute key.

Will Koulouris: Speaking of, I suppose, the Asian region, also perhaps touching on what we were discussing in the first question, in terms of international students, obviously, I suppose, it's been a little bit on the wayside with all the other issues surrounding trade and tourism and the like and just the Covid-19 pandemic. But where are we sitting right now in terms of being able to bring a lot of international students back into the country? Is it perhaps going to be from the start of 2022? What are you eyeing in terms of your planning?

Dan Tehan: Well, that's very much part of the road map as we come out of this virus. Obviously, we need to get the vaccination rates up, and once we continue to get the vaccination rates up, we'll look at different quarantining arrangements. South Australia has already said that it will trial home quarantining. So, we will look to be able to lift the caps which will enable more Australians to be able to return home and then also look at ways that we can bring in international students, that we can bring in foreign workers, that we can bring in the businesspeople who are wanting to conduct business here in Australia. All those things are part of the plan as we go to stage 2 and stage 3 of our road map out of this pandemic.

And it's really now just making sure we can get those vaccination rates up. We've got the supply coming into the country, and then we'll be able to, very importantly, bring back international students, those international business visitors and also look to make sure that we're getting the skilled and semi-skilled workers in that we need.

Martin Soong: Minister, this is Martin, let me quickly jump into the question. If we could get back to Australia's involvement in being part of the Quad, I know that you've spoken before about how the Quad has helped to shore up supply chains, also vaccine distribution, which is great. Ultimately, though, do you still stand by the view that the Quad is not going to, and should not become at the end of the day, an actual free trade agreement? I mean, what's stopping it from becoming that?

Dan Tehan: Well, Australia obviously already has a very good free trade agreement with Japan. We have a very good free trade agreement with the United States. We're embarking on a process to try and ultimately get a free trade agreement with India. Obviously, all countries are active participants of the World Trade Organisation, and so there's different forums, trade forums, that all countries are already a part of. There's close economic relations between the four countries and, really, the focus has been on the vaccine rollout, looking at those critical supply chains which are obviously very important, especially for our future trading relationships when it comes to rare earths and critical minerals. So, we'll continue to look at that.

So, at the moment, that's the focus of the Quad. It will continue to evolve and there'll be other issues which will come on to its agenda, but at the moment our focus, when it comes to our trading relationships, is obviously the CPTPP, we're looking at, with other countries, the UK membership there. We want to bolster our economic engagement with India and hopefully end up with a free trade agreement. We've got our EU free trade agreement negotiations going on, 12th round coming up in October, and hopefully after the agreement in principle with the UK we'll be able to sign that free trade agreement and finalise it by October.

Martin Soong: Okay. Minister, we'll get back to Australia's four-stage plan to restart international air travel. Until recently the thinking had been, the official thinking had been, in terms of expanding travel bubbles, Singapore was seen as top and the next priority. After that you'd be looking at Japan, South Korea, Pacific with, of course, vaccination passports. Is that still the sequencing, or has that changed?

Dan Tehan: No, look, that's still the plan. Obviously, we're in a pandemic so the plan can be adapted and continue to change. But that's what we're looking at. We want to be able to open up and open up with those countries, based on the medical advice, where we know it's safe to do so. And, so we're still very keen to look at expanding our bubble with Singapore and then look to the Pacific, to Japan, to South Korea and other countries which have managed the virus incredibly well as we open up our economy.

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