Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Russia/Ukraine; India.
14 February 2022

Greg Jennett: To tease out some of the risk assessments and threats emanating from Eastern Europe we're joined in the studio now by Tourism and Trade Minister Dan Tehan.

Welcome back Minister after some whirlwind travels of the globe. We'll get to some of your other movements but I know from feedback from viewers there is great anxiety here when we hear escalating language, and we've already played it on the program, coming from the Prime Minister, the Opposition leader; anxiety about what it is that the West knows and why it's talking up, even ahead of Ukraine, and certainly ahead of Russia, the risk of armed conflict.

Why do we need to be as alarmed as we're being told today that we should be?

Dan Tehan: Well, the signals are pointing to the fact that there might be something that's going to occur in the next few days, so I think that's why the Australian Government is acting.

Greg Jennett: That sounds pretty specific, just to interrupt you, this would be intelligence-based assessments?

Dan Tehan: Well, assessments that we get from either our own agencies or from foreign governments and then just watching what other governments are doing. So, for instance, I think we've seen reported, you know, what the US is doing. We've seen what other like‑minded countries, whether it be the UK or European countries, are doing. We've obviously taken action ourselves in moving our key Embassy personnel from Kyiv. So, all these things, obviously, point to the fact that there is a deep concern about what might occur.

Greg Jennett: So, how are we to square, and why are we to square that, the picture that you've outlined there, with these constant reassurances from Moscow, from President Putin, that this is the last thing that he has in mind?

Dan Tehan: Well, we have to take the precautions that we think we need to do based on our assessments. Obviously, the Russian President is saying that he's not going to take this course of action. We hope he doesn't and everything we're trying to do is to get a de‑escalation and prevent that from happening. But, obviously, there are other things that are being observed which means that we do want to be very cautious in the approach we're taking and that's why the decision's been taken to move our Embassy personnel.

Greg Jennett: And I take it that we would concur with US and other estimates that troop numbers along the border, Russian troop numbers, are perhaps closer to 130,000 than 100,000, is that sort of in the official Australian estimate range?

Dan Tehan: Well, I can't go into specific details, but I think it's fair to say that most of the publicly reported numbers that are now being seen do mean there is a serious cause for alarm and that's why governments are acting in the way that they are.

Greg Jennett: All right. Well look, that might go some way towards explaining this disparity, I suppose, in rhetoric between both sides here. But, in the event that there is trouble, what should Australian motorists and other consumers fear or expect about disruptions to supply chains generally, but thinking particularly about fuel?

Dan Tehan: Yeah, so look, there's no doubt I think that what we'll see is probably a spike in the oil price. It could mean, too, some sort of spikes also when it comes to gas. So, they're the types of things that one would expect.

Greg Jennett: Any idea of magnitude?

Dan Tehan: No idea of magnitude, obviously, it could depend on the type of action that occurs. I mean, I must say, again, we're hoping that it won't occur.

Greg Jennett: Sure.

Dan Tehan: But if it does, depending on the type of action that occurred, I think, that would depend on the type of magnitudes that you would see.

Greg Jennett: And Australian gas industry, LNG, has been engaged in conversations about these sorts of scenarios. Is there sale opportunity here in the global market for Australia? Has that developed at all in the last week or so?

Dan Tehan: Look, there potentially is and I'm sure they're looking at those opportunities, but also the Australian Government is mindful that we have to ensure that we have plentiful supplies here and that our industry can continue to operate and have a price which means that gas is affordable here.

Greg Jennett: And that's guaranteed, is it, through the levers that you-

Dan Tehan: Well, there is the potential for us to use mechanisms that we've put in place. Now, whether that eventuates or not obviously will depend on circumstances once again. But, obviously, we're looking at those issues. I'm sure our gas companies also are looking at opportunities that they would have if there is a need for them to fill gaps in the market as well. So, all this, I'm sure, in the board rooms of companies, those scenarios are playing out, but also contingencies here in Australia of what we might need to do to obviously protect price and supply here in Australia as well.

Greg Jennett: And if you were going to pull that trigger you'd be giving, what, advance notice to the market? I think that's customary since you obtained this power?

Dan Tehan: Absolutely, so we would do it according to the legislative framework that's set out. So, look, once again, we're hoping we don't get there but if we do all these types of things are being looked at.

Greg Jennett: And Australians at the bowser, I mean, what could they expect, $2 a litre fuel? It's pressing pretty close to that in some parts already.

Dan Tehan: Yeah, it's hard to speculate because it would really depend on the type of conflict that occurred and its magnitude, so very hard to speculate on that because our hope is that we don't get there. But, you know, the various scenarios could be, you know, dependent on how large the conflict is, and that's the uncertainty that comes when you do have conflicts of this sort, if it actually occurs.

Greg Jennett: And a whole range of sanctions would go with it as well on Russia?

Dan Tehan: Absolutely, so-

Greg Jennett: China, what about China? Because we heard Scott Morrison in question time trying to couple President Xi with President Putin here. Should they bear some responsibility if there was strife?

Dan Tehan: Obviously, as the Prime Minister has said, we want all countries to be actively calling on Russia to de‑escalate the situation. But in terms of sanctions themselves, it would be financial sanctions on Russia itself which we've made very clear that we would join.

Greg Jennett: Understood. All right, now to India and you've announced a suite of new friendly ties, I suppose, to be forged across a bunch of portfolio areas with fellow ministers upon your own return from that country after many, many years of discussions and scoping out trade deals with India.

Can you say with any confidence that things are lining up with more certainty now than the last couple of decades?

Dan Tehan: Look, I had a really productive couple of days in India and myself and Minister Goyal have set ourselves a 30-day deadline to attempt to get a deal done. It would be an interim deal, but it would have treaty status. So, we would then try and put it through the Parliament because we think it would be significant enough to warrant that.

Greg Jennett: That would be this Parliament before the end of budget week?

Dan Tehan: So, we would sign the treaty and then obviously it would be up to the future Parliament to put all the legislative framework in place to support that. But we are very keen to get a treaty style agreement signed, if we can do it. Now these things are difficult. You'll remember with the UK we got an interim agreement, and then it took a few months for us to get the final agreement. The thing about this one is the interim agreement wouldn't just be one which is a sort of, almost a status, this one would actually have treaty level agreement. So it would be a significant breakthrough.

Greg Jennett: That would represent, what‑ I was going to use that word. That would represent the most significant breakthrough in that India trade relationship?

Dan Tehan: For eight or nine years we've been pursuing this, and it's been tough and these negotiations are tough. But I've got to say the Indian Trade Minister, Minister Goyal, has entered into these discussions in very good faith. We've built a very strong relationship. We've been able to sit down, both Thursday and Friday we negotiated intensely, and we were able to make some very good progress.

Look, there's still more work to do over the next 30 days but if we could pull this off, particularly for certain sectors of our economy.

Greg Jennett: Agriculture?

Dan Tehan: Agriculture, in particular, certain elements of our ag sector this would be a significant step forward, and also for our services sector. We would be able to make big inroads into the Indian service sector. They would be able to make big inroads here and we could really see the complementarity of our services sectors begin to grow as well. So highly promising.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, a decent foundation to build on in just 30 days. Dan Tehan, for your update on your travels and other matters globally, thanks for joining us on Afternoon Briefing.

Dan Tehan: Thanks for having me, cheers.

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