Interview with Glen Bartholomew, ABC News
Satyam Weinstein: The Trade Minister, Dan Tehan, has just returned from Europe for talks on vaccines and a free trade deal with the UK. He says there's been rapid progress on the trade deal with Britain, despite some early speed bumps and confident Europe will hold up- will not hold up vaccine supplies. I spoke to Dan Tehan just a short time ago.
You're in quarantine in Canberra, having returned from Europe where you met with officials to discuss vaccine dose supply, as well as free trade agreements. To the vaccine supply first, what guarantees did you receive from the EU that they won't hold up vaccine doses that are bound for Australia and the rest of the region, like they have in the past?
Dan Tehan: So the guarantee I was able to get from the EU Trade Commissioner, Commissioner Dombrovskis, was that the one million vaccines which we want to send to PNG will not be held up as long as they go directly from Europe to Papua New Guinea. There is no reason AstraZeneca has to go through the transparency regime that the EU has put in place and therefore those one million vaccines can go from Europe to PNG as soon as they are available and as soon as AstraZeneca can send them.
Weinstein: So how many doses can we expect from Europe here in Australia? Will it be Pfizer or AstraZeneca?
Tehan: Look, our hope is that all companies will be able to honour the contracts that they've entered into. Now Pfizer has met all its contractual obligations with Australia and we see no reason why that won't continue to be the case. When it comes to AstraZeneca, obviously, we want to continue working with them, they've got vaccine contracts that they need to meet in Europe. They've got obligations with us and our hope is that they'll be able to get their levels of production up so that they can start to meet all their contractual obligations as well.
Weinstein: So, have you received assurances from the EU that they won't hold up supply?
Tehan: So, when it comes to the one million doses of the vaccine for PNG, absolutely. When it comes to vaccines for Australia, that's something that we're continuing to discuss with them. Their export transparency regime comes up for review at the end of June, so they'll have a decision to make as to whether they will continue to have that in place. A lot of companies have said that it’s actually deterring investment in production of vaccines. So my hope is, and what I put to them was, there are better ways for us to make sure that we can provide vaccines to our population than putting export regimes in place, and my hope is that come June, the EU will not continue on with its export transparency regime.
Weinstein: Moving on to the free trade agreement with the UK, there was some reporting prior to your meeting with the British Trade Secretary that she regarded you as inexperienced, and was going to put you in an uncomfortable chair for the meeting. How was the meeting and how is the relationship?
Tehan: Yeah look, it was a very warm meeting. Liz Truss rang me and apologised for the article when I arrived which was very gracious of her. She gave me a very warm welcome as did other members of the British Cabinet and we had a very constructive 48 hours negotiating the UK-Australia FTA. We made more progress than we've made since the negotiations began and now we're commencing a sprint to conclude in principle agreement by the beginning of June and I'll be meeting again with Liz Truss tomorrow as we continue to try and finalise the agreement in principle by the beginning of June.
Weinstein: Okay. So what I really want to know is what's your assessment of the chair? Was it comfortable or uncomfortable?
Tehan: It was very comfortable and didn't need a cushion. And I thought it was rather quaint that there was that newspaper article, which said that they would try to upset me by putting me in an uncomfortable chair. As most Australians would know, the rough and tumble of Australian rules football, which I used to play, opponents did a little bit more than trying to sit you in an uncomfortable chair. So very British but, anyway, the most important thing was when Liz and I sat down, we were very much focused on what's in the best interests of both our nations and we made rapid progress on the Free Trade Agreement.
Weinstein: Moving onto the other large diplomatic issue around at the moment, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has slammed the Home Affairs Department’s Secretary for his drums of war comments, saying that such language is selfish, hypes up the threat of war and has called him a troublemaker. Now, do you think these comments are helpful at a time that our relationship with China is at its lowest ebb in decades?
Tehan: Well, as the Minister for Home Affairs has said, we have to be alert but not alarmed for the changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. And as the Prime Minister has said, what we're focusing on doing, is making sure that we've got an open and prosperous and peaceful Indo-Pacific and that will continue to be the aim of the Australian Government.
Weinstein: Trade wise, what leverage do we have with China?
Tehan: Obviously, we have a very complimentary trading relationship with China. It's one which has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty and has improved our standard of living here in Australia. And I don't think there’s two more complementary economies that you'd find anywhere in the globe. So, we want to continue to make sure that that mutual beneficial arrangement that comes from our trading relationship continues. That's why we're looking to have constructive engagement when it comes to China. It's why I wrote to my counterpart, who was appointed roughly at the same time I was, within about 24 hours, asking and seeking to be able to sit down with him and work through our current disputes that we've got in our trading arrangements. But also to begin working on all the things that we need to begin in, whether it's world trade organisation reform, or other matters. And my hope is that over time, we will be able to get that very important dialogue going again with China about our trading arrangements.
Weinstein: If things deteriorate further trade wise, are there things that we’d be willing to take off the table for China like exports of iron ore?
Tehan: What we want to do is work through the current issues and the current disputes that we have with China, and use the independent umpire to try and resolve them where we deem it necessary. So, we’ve done that with barley where we are pursuing a WTO dispute over Chinese actions on our barley exports and, at the moment, we’re actively considering whether we should do the same when it comes to our wine. So, we’ll continue at officials’ level to talk to the Chinese Government about the current disputes but also where necessary, look to the independent umpire, the world trade organisation, to try and resolve the current problems that we’ve got.
Weinstein: Have you spoken to your Chinese counterpart about the recent tensions?
Tehan: No, I haven’t spoken to my Chinese counterpart since I became Australia’s Trade Minister. As I’ve said, I’ve written to him saying that I would like to speak with him and I’d like to be able to sit down with him and work through these issues but so far I haven’t got a reply to that letter.
[End of excerpt]
Weinstein: That was the Trade Minister, Dan Tehan, speaking to me a little earlier.