Interview with David Speers, Insiders

  • Transcript
Subjects: COVID-19, Victoria, Australia-UK FTA, WTO.
30 May 2021

David Speers: Dan Tehan, welcome to the program. You were pretty fired up back then, particularly about kids missing school. Here we are back in another lockdown, kids are again unable to go to school, is this another failure of leadership?

Dan Tehan: Well, I think what we've learnt through this pandemic, David, is that the Australian people want us to focus on getting the outcomes that we need as we deal with this pandemic and seeing governments work together to make sure we get those outcomes and that is really what has led us to the place we are in at the moment, when you look at how Australia has dealt with this pandemic, compared to the rest of the world. Now, obviously, the situation in Victoria is a difficult one at the moment, and my thoughts are with everyone in Victoria at the moment as we are dealing with this. But I think if we have learned anything throughout this pandemic, it is that the Australian people want all of us working together and particularly governments working together with dealing with this.

Speers: So that's the lesson you've learnt? That's why there is no criticism now of the Victorian Government?

Tehan: Well, I think when you are in a pandemic, when you are facing a crisis like this, we all do have to be working together, and that is what has led to our success in dealing with this pandemic. As the panel was saying earlier, as you were mentioning before, there is no other place that you would rather be at the moment than in Australia when dealing with this crisis, and I think all of us share that view, and that's because we have more or less been able to work together and that's what will get us through this current crisis in Victoria at the moment, and hopefully it will only last the week and we take that approach, we will get through it.

Speers: Do you think it needs to be a state-wide lockdown when there isn't COVID in some of the parts of your electorate?

Tehan: Well, ultimately, the Victorian State Government has had to listen to the medical experts in Victoria, and take the decision that they think is best to make this as short as possible a lockdown as they possibly can. So, they would have listened to that advice and taken that advice. I must say, when it comes to regional and rural Victorians, the way that they have been prepared to play their part has been incredibly admirable. They've seen it as an important part of making sure that the state comes through this. Now, we've obviously had a lot less impact by the virus in regional and rural Victoria, but they understand if they only lock down Greater Melbourne it could lead to a lot of people fleeing Melbourne out into regional and rural Victoria and that could impact on rural and regional communities, so they are prepared to play their part, and that's very admirable of them.

Speers: Just on that and how supportive they are of some of these restrictions, there is a family in Warrnambool, as you know, in your electorate who were denied an exemption of the funeral of their 8-year-old boy who tragically drowned on a school camp. I know you've spent a long time talking to the mother. Can you understand this decision?

Tehan: Well, I was dealing with the mother on Thursday, and this is the most tragic of circumstances and, can I say, I spoke to her again yesterday, and there were two things that she really wanted passed on. First of all, she is hoping that the lockdown will end, that what we are dealing with at the moment in Victoria will end, and over time she will be able to have the funeral that she wants for her son where the community, his friends, can come together and they can celebrate the life that he lived. And also, can I say, she is an extraordinary person. The compassion and the courage that she has shown, dealing with the tragic circumstances that have confronted her. My heart, my thoughts, my prayers are with her and her family, but I've got to say, the way that she has dealt with these circumstances is a lesson for all of us in Australia. The grace that she has shown and the decency that she has shown has been quite extraordinary.

Speers: Look, this lockdown is going to hurt a lot of casual workers, including in your seat, right across Victoria. What support is the Federal Government going to give?

Tehan: Well, we already have existing support available for Victorians. There is a disaster pandemic leave payment that is available. There is also...

Speers: Hang on, that pandemic payment is available if you have COVID or you are a close contact. It is not available to all casual workers who are hit by this lockdown.

Tehan: And there is also an emergency health payment that is available as well.

Speers: Not to all casual workers, though. I'm asking about if you work at a restaurant, a cafe, a bar, a gym, and so on, you don't have work for a week, you don't have an income, what do they get?

Tehan: Well, you can go to Centrelink and if you're eligible, if you've lost a complete week's work or if you will lose two weeks' work, then you might be eligible for one of these emergency health payments. For those people who find themselves in circumstances where they've completely lost their income, then they should go to Centrelink and see whether they are eligible. You've got remember…

Speers: I had a look at the Australian Government website. That wasn't my reading of it. Are you saying that if you don't necessarily have COVID, you are not necessarily a contact, but if you are nonetheless affected by the lockdown, you can access one of these payments?

Tehan: If you've lost your income, and obviously it depends on eligibility, and you will lose your income for the week, you should go to Centrelink and see if you are eligible for a payment.

Speers: Are you eligible if you don't have COVID. Are you announcing a new government policy position that you can get the payment?

Tehan: This is not a new government policy.

Speers: So you can't get the payment if you don't have COVID or you are not a close contact?

Tehan: Well, what I'm saying is if you've lost all your income, then you should go to Centrelink and see whether you're eligible for a payment.

Speers: What would they say: If you don't have COVID or a close contact?

Tehan: Well, David, it would depend on your circumstances and your loss of income. They will assess your situation and see whether you are eligible for a payment. And what you have to remember, David, in terms of Federal Government support for Victoria during this pandemic, we have paid more Federal Government support for Victoria per capita than any state or territory. It is $46 billion, and if you accumulate what we've paid in support to every other state and territory, the support we've paid to Victoria is double that, and Victorian...

Speers: Just on that, we keep hearing the Government boast about the importance of JobKeeper last year. If it was so important then, why isn't there something similar now?

Tehan: This is a 7-day short lockdown.

Speers: We hope!

Tehan: Which we hope will be effective and will finish. Obviously, what we've seen with the case numbers, four and then five in the last two days—all of us are hoping that this will be a short, 7-day lockdown. Our Budget also has provided support. It was handed down two weeks ago—ongoing support for Victorians. The Victorian State Government have said that they are going to announce some funding for business today so we will wait and see...

Speers: Is it still looks like there is nothing for the workers.

Tehan: Well, let's wait and see what that funding provides.

Speers: Alright.

Tehan: And obviously we will continue to have discussions with the Victorian State Government, and we will continue to monitor the situation.

Speers: So the Government might still do something?

Tehan: Well, obviously, we are providing support, ongoing support to Victorians. Record levels of numbers of support to Victoria and we will continue to stand by Victorians.

Speers: Now, most states have shut their borders to anyone coming from either Melbourne or Victoria. You are the Minister for tourism. What impact will this have on domestic tourism?

Tehan: Well, in Victoria, obviously, it will have a significant impact on domestic tourism

Speers: And other states?

Tehan: From the rest of the country, the feedback that I'm getting at the moment and, in particular, from the airlines is that we are seeing pretty much business as usual with regards to domestic tourism, so obviously impact in and out of Victoria, but between other states, what we are seeing is it is pretty much business as usual.

Speers: No criticism of the states shutting their borders this time?

Tehan: Obviously we want to minimise states closing their borders as much as they possibly can. But as we've said all along, if health authorities deem that that is what is necessary, then it is the thing that has got us through handling this virus—listening to that health advice. And so it will continue to work with states and territories to support the tourism industry, especially the domestic tourism industry at this time, and the quicker that we can open those borders, the better obviously for our economy as a whole, but for the domestic tourism industry as well.

Speers: What's the plan for reopening the international border?

Tehan: Well, obviously, this is something that we are continuing to assess and continuing to monitor. The Budget had an assumption that it would occur at the middle of next year, but as the virus continues and, you've got to remember, internationally more cases and more deaths now than we've had through the whole period of this virus.

Speers: Sure, but is there any plan, any sort of roadmap? Other countries have at least given their tourism industry some sort of roadmap. Have you got one?

Tehan: Well, we are continuing looking and assessing what that roadmap would look like. Obviously, the bubble with New Zealand has been an important component and important first step of opening the border up, but...

Speers: So are you working on a Road map?

Tehan: Well, we are continuing to work on a roadmap, but we've got to continue...

Speers: When will we see that?

Tehan: Well, obviously, it depends on circumstance. For instance, one of the things earlier in the year that we were looking at and obviously had some very preliminary discussions with the Singaporean Government on, is if we could get a bubble operating with New Zealand, then potentially could we look at one with Singapore. Obviously, they have been impacted by the virus recently, so these things, obviously, have to be always under review, we have to be looking at it and very dependent on (a) what the expert medical advice is and (b) what the circumstances are with the virus as it is still ravaging countries overseas.

Speers: Sure, brings us to vaccines which is pretty important. Do you think we are in a race to vaccinate or not?

Tehan: Well, the Melbourne Cup is a race, the Stawell Gift is a race. When it comes to vaccines, what we need to do is make sure we can get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can. If you look at the first million doses that were administered in this country, it took 47 days for those doses to be administered. The last million was done in 13 days, so you've seen a rapid ramp-up and we will continue to try to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can.

Speers: So it is not a race or it is a race?

Tehan: Well, you don't describe a vaccine rollout as a race. The Melbourne Cup is a race, the Stawell Gift is a race. What we are trying to do is get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we can. 47 days for the first million, 13 days for the last and we will continue to try to ramp that up as quickly as we possibly can.

Speers: Couple on your trade portfolio if we can. Australia is already taking action in the World Trade Organisation over barley tariffs. Are you going to launch a second case to support Australian wine-makers?

Tehan: That is something we've got under active consideration. We've had detailed discussions with the wine industry on this, and from the outset, we've always said that we would take a very principled approach to dealing with these trade disputes, and if we think our industry has been harmed or injured, we will take all necessary steps and measures to try to address that. Obviously, a very important step is to go to the World Trade Organisation and to deal with this as a dispute there, and that's something we have under active consideration.

Speers: Would you be worried, is that part of your consideration in how China might respond, any sort of retaliation from Beijing?

Tehan: Well, China and all other countries use the dispute settlement mechanism at the World Trade Organisation. This is a normal course of dealing with these disputes. So, what we want to do is make sure that we have a very strong legal case to be able to take to the World Trade Organisation because, obviously, if you take a case, you want to do your best to try to win it. We have been getting all the information that we need to make sure that we've got a very strong case to take. We've pretty much finished getting all that information and now we are about to make the final decision as to whether we should go to the WTO.

Speers: Alright. Finally the UK free trade agreement. I know the Prime Minister is going to be visiting Boris Johnson in a couple of weeks when he goes over for the G7, have you finished the negotiations on this? Is it simply now waiting for the two PMs to announce it, or are you still negotiating?

Tehan: No, we are still negotiating.

Speers: Over what? What is the sticking point?

Tehan: There is a lot of fine detail that has to be worked through when it comes to these agreements. I was in lengthy discussions with Liz Truss on Friday night. I will be speaking to her again on Tuesday and we will be speaking, I'm sure, regularly this coming week. These are very complex, detailed discussions.

Speers: What are you stuck on? There is pushback in the UK over letting more Australian beef and lamb into the country. Is that the issue?

Tehan: Well, that's an issue that we continue to discuss. There are issues we continue to discuss around mobility, how we can get more ability for Brits and Australians to move between two countries, what we can do additionally when it comes to investment, what we can do additionally when it comes to services and, ultimately, in the end an agreement that will be a win/win for both nations. Those discussions continue. I think it is 15 days until our PM is over in the UK, so it will be a very busy week or 10 days for me coming up.

Speers: We will let you get back to it. Dan Tehan, thanks for joining us.

Tehan: Thanks, David.

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