Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s defence contract with France; EU Australia FTA discussions; China’s entry to CPTPP; Christian Porter.
20 September 2021

Fran Kelly: Well Australia's Trade Minister Dan Tehan will be dispatched to Paris to try and repair the damage caused by this decision to dump the French defence contract amid fears this crisis could sink Australia's proposed FTA with the EU.

Dan Tehan, welcome back to Breakfast.

Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Fran, and I will be attending the Paris OECD Ministerial meeting as I'd planned to do, but also obviously I will be very keen to touch base with my French counterpart while I'm in France for the Paris OECD meeting.

Fran Kelly: Well, you heard the anger there and the offence taken by the French, they feel fooled, they are angry said the Ambassador. He's complained of double language and being kept in the dark intentionally until the last minute. Will you be apologising to the French when you arrive?

Dan Tehan: Well look, we understand the disappointment in France at the moment with this decision.

Fran Kelly: I think fury is a better word.

Dan Tehan: Look, we understand the disappointment in France with this decision, but I think also what everyone has to understand is that we've taken a decision which we firmly believe is in our own sovereign national interests. And ultimately that's what governments have to do when it comes to the national interest, they have to act in their own interests and that ultimately is what we've done and I look forward to being able to sit down and be able to explain that and clearly work through that, because France also understands the importance of them taking decisions in their national interests.

The friendship that we've had over a century, you know, clearly demonstrates that our interests are mutual, ultimately. We share the same values; we've fought defending those values side by side and we've worked for over 100 years to build a significant partnership and I'm sure that over time we'll be able to continue that strong partnership and we'll be able to put this behind us.

Fran Kelly: How do you answer the question though that the Ambassador and others have raised, about is this any way to treat a trusted ally and partner? I mean as the Ambassador says, France shared its technological military secrets with Australia over these 18 months and more, and in all that time, the 18 months or so that this was being discussed and the months this year it's been discussed with the US and UK, not a word was uttered to France. Why didn't you bring France into your confidence to say you're not happy with the capability, it needs to change and try and work it through, why didn't you do that?

Dan Tehan: Well, there were conversations as I understand it that there were some difficulties with the contracts and those discussions were had…

Fran Kelly: Sure, but in no way has said that they could lead…

Dan Tehan: so, there have been discussions.

Fran Kelly: to an ultimate cancelling of the contract. That's what the Ambassador just told us. "There have always been discussions", he said, "But in no way was it said to us that this could lead to the ultimate cancellation of the contract".

Dan Tehan: Well I haven't— I wasn't privy to those discussions so I don't know the exact details of those discussions, but there have been conversations about the contract and ultimately, you know, there was issues with regards to cost overruns. There were issues with regards to timing as I understand it. So those conversations were being had and ultimately when it comes to making a decision in your sovereign national interests you have to weigh up everything and you have to weigh up what ultimately is in the best interests of especially the geostrategic environment that we currently find ourselves facing.

Fran Kelly: Of course, of course, but isn't this…

Dan Tehan: And that's what the Government has done.

Fran Kelly: Yes but isn't this clearly a failure of diplomacy if one our closest allies feels that they were fooled, humiliated, lied to, stabbed in the back. Where is the trust? Where is the sincerity? That's how they're feeling. There's a failure of diplomatic work here, isn't there?

Dan Tehan: Well the Government has had to take a decision that it thinks is in its sovereign national interest. Now sometimes these decisions that you have to take, they'll be in your national interests. They might not necessarily be in the national interest of others, but you've got to be prepared to make them. You've got to be prepared to take the tough decisions and that's what the Government has sought to do.

We think it's in Australia's national interests how we have acted, and we will always continue to act in that regard and will continue to explain that to France.

Fran Kelly: Okay.

Dan Tehan: We understand, especially when it comes to the military relationship that we have with them, that there'll be strong disappointment with the decision that we've taken, but we will continue to make sure that they understand why, ultimately, we've taken this decision.

Fran Kelly: And does Australia understand there could be ramifications? The European Affairs Minister in France says he can't see how we can trust our Australian partners when it comes to the free trade agreement that's currently being negotiated between the EU and Australia. It would be our second major, second largest free trade agreement I think if we did it. Is that now as defunct as the subs deal?

Dan Tehan: So the 12th round of the EU Australia free trade agreement negotiations will take place on 12 October. I'll be meeting with Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU Trade Representative, when I travel to Europe in the next couple of weeks. There's a strong understanding, from my recent trip to Europe to discuss the EU free trade agreement, this is in the mutual interests of both Australia and of Europe and I see no reason why those discussions won't continue, why those negotiations won't take place.

Fran Kelly: Can you see a reason why there might not be so much trust underpinning those negotiations though?

Dan Tehan: Well when it comes to free trade agreement negotiations they're always tough, they're always hard fought and they're always inked. I'm sure that we will be able to over time reach an agreement on these negotiations. Obviously we've been in discussions and negotiations for three years.

With the 12th round we're starting to get towards the end game so my hope is we will be able to, over the next 12 to 18 months, to finalise this agreement.

Fran Kelly: Minister, on the very day Australia announced it was buying nuclear subs from the US and the UK, China formally applied to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. You've said Australia won't allow it to do so until it resumes high level dialogue on issues such as the barley and wine trade strikes which are now before the WTO. But it might help ease tensions if Australia agrees to let China in and if China's admitted, it would have to abide by the rules for international commerce. Wouldn't China's bad behaviour be constrained?

Dan Tehan: So, Fran, one of the things about negotiating the accession process of any country into the CPTPP is that you have to be able to sit down and talk about that accession process. We're going through this at the moment with the United Kingdom and what we've agreed with the United Kingdom is that the bilateral free trade agreement between Australia and the United Kingdom will form the major part of their accession to the CPTPP as far as the individual negotiations with Australia goes.

Now you have to be able to have those discussions at ministerial level to work through those issues and we've made sure that China understands that we would need to be able to sit down and work through issues with them for their interest to accede to the CPTPP. And in the same way the CPTPP is the gold standard agreement in the Indo-Pacific. So all countries have made it very clear that given that it's a gold standard agreement, any country that wishes to accede to it would have to abide by all the rules and the standards. So whichever country seeks accession will need to make sure that they abide by their WTO commitments.

Fran Kelly: Okay.

Dan Tehan: Their bilateral free trade agreement commitments, their regional commitments.

Fran Kelly: Just finally, Minister, your colleague Christian Porter has resigned from Cabinet, but don't voters still have a right to know who contributed to the blind trust which helped pay his legal fees? I mean what difference does it make if the anonymous donations are made to a minister or a back bencher, we still should know, shouldn't we?

Dan Tehan: Fran, this is obviously an incredibly difficult time for Christian, for him and his family. He's made a big decision yesterday to resign from the Cabinet. I think what we need to do now is give Christian the time and space that he needs. He's talked about a mob mentality…

Fran Kelly: What I'm asking for is, does the Australian electorate have the right to know who an MP is receiving funds from?

Dan Tehan: Well Christian has said in his statement yesterday that, "I'll provide the information required under the members' register of interests" and I think all of us at this time need to just understand these were allegations which were made over 30 years ago.

Fran Kelly: Okay.

Dan Tehan: They have not been proven. You've got the right to innocence until proven guilty.

Fran Kelly: That's really not the question. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

Dan Tehan: Thanks Fran.


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