Interview with Glen Bartholomew, ABC NewsRadio Mornings

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Myanmar, Trade portfolio, Universities and international students, Craig Kelly.
03 February 2021

Glen Bartholomew: Well, to international action on another front. The Australian Government is facing calls to impose new sanctions on Myanmar’s top generals, following this week’s military takeover of the country. It comes as the United States declared the roundup of civilian leaders in Myanmar a coup, saying it would impose sanctions or other penalties on the country’s military. Human rights groups are calling for immediate and targeted action by Australia, including sanctions and travel bans on the head of Myanmar’s military. They also believe Australian and military cooperation with the South East Asian nation should be immediately suspended. Well, Dan Tehan is Australia’s Trade Minister, and he joins me now from Canberra. Good morning, Minister.

Dan Tehan: Morning. Wonderful to be with you.

Bartholomew: What is the Australian Government’s reaction likely to be, and where are we at with the response to the coup in Myanmar?

Tehan: Well, obviously, we’re deeply concerned with what has taken place, and that’s been expressed by both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. It continues to be a rapidly evolving situation, so we’re monitoring it, trying to work out exactly what is going on, trying to get as much information as we can, talking to other countries to get their assessment of the situation.

Bartholomew: That’s similar to what you’ve said in recent days, that it’s too early to contemplate sanctions. That’s not something you’ve considered at this stage. You want a considered approach to stop and see what’s going on. Others, though, seem to have already gone through that process. When might we be in a position to do so?

Tehan: Look, we continue to monitor the situation, and we continue to assess the situation. But, we will take our time before any decisions are made, and we will look to work in counterpart with other like-minded countries.

Bartholomew: So, no idea as to when that might occur?

Tehan: No. It’s a rapidly evolving situation. Obviously, we’re in discussions with like-minded countries, and we will make those decisions after we’ve considered them and made sure that we would get the appropriate outcomes that we are requiring and, also, to ensure that we’re working in unison with other like-minded countries.

Bartholomew: The UN Secretary-General Special Envoy on Myanmar has overnight strongly condemned the military’s deposing of the civilian leadership and has called for the immediate release of the civilian leader and others that have been detained. Others are joining in, saying it’s time for some concrete action by countries all around the world. Why won’t you commit to some sort of sanctions or other penalties?

Tehan: Because, we’re going to, obviously, continue to monitor the situation and consult with other countries, and then we will take those decisions as and when we see necessary but we’ve made it very clear, it is important that we take our time to consider the circumstances before any decisions are taken.

Bartholomew: What do you make of the suggestion that’s being made that this sort of continued cooperation with the regime, despite claims of genocide and war crimes in recent years, represents a bit of a systemic failure by the international community, and may well have effectively emboldened the military to take the action they did this week?

Tehan: So, what we’ve always sought to do is work cooperatively with the democratically elected government of Myanmar. And, we’ve obviously done everything we can to support the democratic institutions in Myanmar, and that is what we will continue to do and advocate for, is a return for, of that democratic government.

Bartholomew: So, at this stage, it’s business as usual?

Tehan: At this stage, we are closely monitoring and assessing the situation, we’re consulting with like-minded countries, we’re consulting with countries in the region and we will take our time to consider what action, if any, we will take as a result of what has occurred.

Bartholomew: Do you think we should have done more sooner?

Tehan: As I’ve said, we are watching the situation, we’re trying to get as much information as we can as to what is occurring on the ground. We’re consulting with other countries in the region, with like-minded countries, and we will take our time to consider what decisions, if any, we will now take.

Bartholomew: You have indeed said that, indeed. Minister, you are the Trade Minister now, getting your feet under the desk at the new portfolio. A big challenge for you, of course, is to try and replace some of that lost trade with China. Some of the business community getting a bit impatient saying, listen, we’re not sure we’ve handled this correctly. What can we do in the meantime to diversify our trade interests?

Tehan: Well, we’re pursuing free trade agreements with the United Kingdom and with the European Union — that would add, would gain us increased preferential access to a market of over 550 million people. We’re obviously engaging with the new Biden administration, in particular, we will be seeking to get them to re-engage with the CPTPP. The TPP is a gold standard free trade agreement, and we would love the US to re-engage with that agreement. I’ll be holding talks with my New Zealand counterpart on Friday, where we’ll be discussing, among other things, our bilateral relationship for the importance of APEC. And, New Zealand is hosting APEC this year, and what we would dearly love to see is all Asia-Pacific trade ministers being able to meet in person towards the end of this year, to push the trade liberalisation agenda. We are seeking now to do scoping studies with Israel on a free trade agreement, and with EFTA, which includes Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland. We think there are real opportunities with the market of those four countries. So, there is plenty on the agenda and plenty we’re doing to continue to diversify our ability to access international markets.

Bartholomew:  I mentioned you’ve just changed portfolios. While I’ve got you, of course, your former portfolio was education, looking after universities and the like. The new figures out today show Australian universities collectively lost about $2 billion in revenue and 17,000 workers because of the effect on the international student market. Not good news.

Tehan: No. Look, we have to do everything we can, once we have the global pandemic under control, to get the international student market back. But, I was pleased to see that the $1 billion investment that we put into research in our university sector last year made a significant difference to the universities’ finances …

Bartholomew: … Will they need that sort of assistance again this year?

Tehan: Well, obviously, we’ll continue to monitor and assess the situation, but it was pleasing to know that that one-off largest single investment into research capability in our universities last year of $1 billion really made a significant impact on the overall finances of the sector, which were obviously hurt by the pandemic.

Bartholomew: Minister, are you comfortable with the messages being sent out on the COVID front by your Liberal colleague Craig Kelly?

Tehan: So, what I would say to all Australians is that there is very good health advice out there from Government websites, and I would encourage everyone to make sure that they’re reading that advice. And, can I let the Australian people know that the Government is doing everything it can to make sure that we have a successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. That will commence at the end of this month, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that that rollout is a success.

Bartholomew: Minister, thanks very much for your time.

Tehan: Thanks a lot. Cheers. Bye.

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