Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: The Quad meeting, Support for the tourism sector, Border closures, COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver motion, COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Greg Hunt.
10 March 2021

Fran Kelly: Our Trade Minister is Dan Tehan. Dan Tehan, welcome back to Breakfast.

Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Fran.

Kelly: This is going to be the first ever leaders’ summit of The Quad countries. How significant is this moment and is it all about checking China’s power in the region?

Tehan: It’s about a free and open Indo-Pacific, and this will be an historic meeting, bringing together these four democracies that are coming together to make sure that that vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific is one that all countries will pursue in the Indo-Pacific. And, the fact that President Biden has made this meeting one of his key multilateral initiatives so early on in his administration, I think is also incredibly important.

Kelly: China has not been happy about The Quad before. Now, it’s a leaders’ summit, it’s even more unhappy, and on Sunday Chinese Foreign Minister has accused the US of finger-pointing and quote, “building small circles in the name of multilateralism”. Is that what’s going on? This is a small circle to try and push back, with some heft, against China?

Tehan: No, what the meeting will be about is a very important discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic and what is the best way we can ensure that all countries come out of that as strongly as they possibly can; that we can make sure that the vaccine is distributed to all countries in the Indo-Pacific — also, addressing the very important issue of climate change and how we’re going to go about meeting the emissions reductions targets that countries have set; and also in that key area of critical technologies and making sure that supply chains are there that will ensure that those critical technologies; that especially we’ll need to make sure that we can take the steps we need to drive that emissions reductions, are there, and countries can be guaranteed of supply.

Kelly: Isn’t, all of that may be, I’m sure, on the table, but is it in the climate of the threat posed by China, which Australia’s exporters have felt very acutely across a range of sectors in the recent year? I mean, given our involvement in The Quad, do we run the risk of more retaliation on the trade front? Is Australia gearing our exporters up for that?

Tehan: No, because what this is about is, is about a free and open Indo-Pacific. It’s one where all countries trade with each other, where we make sure that the APEC agenda, where we make sure the RCEP agenda, where we make sure that all the bilateral free trade agreements in place, that those rules that are put there that have meant that all countries, including China, have flourished over the last 50 to 60 years, that they continue to be the rules that everyone abides by, that we can continue to put new rules in place which will benefit all countries. That is what this agenda is about. It is an incredibly positive one and making sure that that vision for the Indo-Pacific is free and open is one that continues, because we know that all countries will flourish under such an agenda.

Kelly: So, in a sense, is The Quad about giving Australia and other countries more ballast when it comes to dealing with China on trade because if you are, on the agenda, you said, critical technology supply chains? Is it about, you know, giving guarantees, from one country to another, that there will be a supply chain option if China is not in the picture? Is that what it’s about, to diversifying markets? And, securing supply chains?

Tehan: No, it’s about making sure that markets remain open, and the trading is done on a free basis so that everyone can benefit from all the benefits that accrue from free trade. We know here in Australia, one in five jobs accrue from trade, one in four in rural and regional areas. So, it’s about making sure that everyone understands that if we have trade liberalisation and people making sure that they’re trading by the rules, that’s the best thing that we can do to ensure that all countries prosper in the Indo-Pacific. It’s why we’ve had a rules-based approach since the Second World War, and it’s why our country, our region, I think, has blossomed more than any other, because with this rules-based approach it’s meant that all countries have prospered.

Kelly: This initiative from Joe Biden to call this virtual meeting on Friday elevates The Quad to leadership level. How significant is that, and what change does that make to the power of this, of this alliance of this dialogue?

Tehan: Well, this is historic. This will be an historic meeting. The fact that Joe Biden has put this at the head of his multilateral agenda, I think, is incredibly significant, and the fact that Australia has a seat at the table at such an important meeting, I think, we cannot underestimate the importance of this.

Kelly: You’re also the Tourism Minister of this country. The finishing touches are being put on a package of COVID support measures for tourism and aviation sectors. Is that new support going to be enough to offset the loss of JobKeeper when the wage subsidies are withdrawn in a few weeks’ time, because we spoke to a peak body for Queensland tourism yesterday and they’re very, very concerned about this and, to be frank, they have their doubts.

Tehan: Well, we’ll be doing all we can to support the tourism sector. We’ve obviously been there for them throughout the pandemic, and we want to make sure as JobKeeper is removed that we’re they’re supporting them. And, if I could just give a call out to all Australians who are listening at the moment, Fran, we want you to do your patriotic duty and get out there and take a holiday over the next four to six months. It’s going to be incredibly important to support the 660,000 jobs that are in the tourism industry, and especially when you travel, if you can spend like you do overseas, rather than like we normally do when we holiday in Australia where we tend to penny-pinch a bit. We want people really dipping into their pockets and spending like they do when they’re overseas. We are very confident that the support will be there to help our wonderful tourism industry and all those wonderful, wonderful locations that we’ve got – our capital cities and out into the rural and regional areas. I think that, you know, Australians going out, exploring their own backyard for the next four to six months, if we can get everyone doing that, that’ll really help and support the industry.

Kelly: Well, I understand the intent of the shoutout, but the vaccine rollout’s going to have a lot to do with that. I mean, as we’ve heard yesterday, and hear repeatedly, Australian’s still aren’t quite confident to travel very far from home because of, you know, border closures, because of COVID outbreaks, the vaccine’s going to dictate that. There’s also a lot of Australians who are still doing it tough. I mean, unemployment is still up, so a lot don’t have the money in their pockets to go out and splash it out. But, the Fin Review is reporting today that the support from the Government, we think will be announced tomorrow, will be in the form of interest free loans, an extension of a current scheme that lends money to small and medium-sized businesses. We heard from, as I mentioned, Daniel Gschwind, yesterday, Chief Executive of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, who said that a lot of small business and medium-sized businesses are reluctant to take on loans because things have been so tough, they’re already extended. Is a loan scheme going to do the job?

Tehan: Well, Fran, the package will be announced in the coming days, we won’t have to wait very long, and we’ll be able to detail the support that will be in the package, but it won’t just be one thing that we’re looking at. We’re looking at a range of options as to how to support the sector. We understand how important it is. We understand, in particular, how it’s been impacted by border closures, and one of the things, the key things that we need now that the vaccine is rolling out, is that we need state and territory leaders to make sure that the border closures are very much a last resort, because we want people to have confidence to travel again. All the surveys that have been done show that people’s biggest concern now about travelling is not COVID-19, it’s actually border closures and being locked out of their states …

Kelly: … Yeah, which was driven by health advice.

Tehan: Well, I mean, the health advice and the national health advice has been if we could start by going to localised approaches to dealing with outbreaks, and only use those economy-wide shutdown or border shutdown as a last resort, that is a much better way to deal with it. So, if we can take that approach nationally, that will help put confidence in people to get on planes, to get in their cars, put the caravans on the back of the cars and get travelling again, and that’s what we want to see.

Kelly: Okay. Just a couple of other quick issues. Talking about vaccines, you said earlier that the part of The Quad, part of the discussion will be to make sure the vaccine is distributed across the Indo-Pacific. We spoke earlier with Dr Christos Christou from the Médecins Sans Frontières about a proposal from the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property on COVID-19 medical products, including vaccines. More than 100 countries support this, but Australia is one of 10 blocking the proposal. Why wouldn’t Australia support this?

Tehan: So, we’re working with the Director-General of the World Trade Organization on this. Obviously, we’ve got to make sure that there are some protections in place for the millions of dollars that has gone into the research to create these vaccines. So, we’re working very constructively with the World Trade Organization …

Kelly: … Well, just on that, though, I asked the President of Médecins Sans Frontières that very question. He said most of the money funding the research has been Government money, not private money, and as the UN Secretary-General said, you know, this is a time for us to all be in this together. Why would we be looking at protecting investment at this point? Isn’t what we should be protecting is the livelihood, is the lives and the safety of everyone in our region?

Tehan: Well, we’ve been very keen to make sure that we will be supporting the distribution of the vaccine in our region, and we’ve invested …

Kelly: … Yeah, but what about this intellectual property waiver?

Tehan: So, we’re working through this to make sure that we can get the proper outcome, and we’ve been in very constructive discussions within the World Trade Organization on this matter …

Kelly: … Do you think Australia will sign, ultimately?

Tehan: Well, if we can get a proper resolution that we’re working towards, and all the discussions have been very constructive so far, so my hope is that we can get a resolution.

Kelly: And, just briefly, Australia, Italy blocked a shipment of AstraZeneca to Australia last week. France threatened to do the same. Do these bans mean we’re going to get less vaccine?

Tehan: No, and one of the most significant decisions that this Government took last year was to make sure that we would have our own domestic supply here in Australia of the vaccine and, as you’re aware, that domestic supply will kick in at the end of this month. And, in the meantime, we continue to get shipments of the vaccine coming to Australia so we can roll the vaccine out as it’s currently being rolled out. So, this will not lead to any shortages.

Kelly: And, Dan Tehan, we should ask you about your fellow Minister Greg Hunt. He spent the night in hospital with, I think, what’s being described as an infection. How is he and will he be in Parliament next week?

Tehan: Well, he’s well, I spoke to him yesterday. He was the normal, vibrant, bubbly Greg, and he’s as keen to get back into work and get back to work as he possibly can be — so, I’m not quite sure. It will obviously depend on the speed of his recovery. He’s having a series of antibiotics and my hope is that he will be back with us next week. But, in the meantime, the Prime Minister’s stepped up to the mantle and has taken on the Health portfolio. So, I think we can all agree that we’re in very safe hands while Greg’s recuperating.

Kelly: Minister, thanks for joining us.

Tehan: Thanks, Fran.

Kelly: Dan Tehan is the Minister for Trade and Tourism.

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