Interview with Hamish Macdonald, ABC RN Breakfast
Hamish MacDonald: But right now, the Prime Minister has strongly endorsed an investigation into whether the COVID-19 virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. The controversial support will be offered today in a scene-setting speech ahead of the PM’s attendance at the G7 sum in the UK where he’ll meet world leaders, including the US President Joe Biden. In another shot across Beijing’s bow, the PM will also push for the restoration of the penalties regime under the World Trade Organisation to tackle what he calls economic coercion. It’s clear the target is China. Trade Minister Dan Tehan, welcome back to Breakfast.
Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Hamish.
Hamish MacDonald: I want to get to some of the issues around the WTO, but on this pursuit of answers around the origins of COVID-19, the World Health Organisation has already concluded that the so-called lab leak theory is extremely unlikely. Why, then, does the Australian government want further investigation?
Dan Tehan: Well, it was the first part of an investigation and they said that more work needed to be done—and what we’ve said is that we support that further work being done, consistent with the World Health Organisation report. And that’s what the Prime Minister will be very clear about today – that there is still more work to be done, and we do need to get to the bottom of what has happened because the globe cannot afford, both in health terms and in economic terms, to go through another pandemic like this.
Hamish MacDonald: If it did leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is the government suspicious that it was deliberate?
Dan Tehan: Look, we want further work to be done, and that is what we support. The World Health Organisation thought that the virus most likely was transmitted from animals to humans but we do think that there needs to be more work done consistent with the initial World Health Organisation report.
Hamish MacDonald: But what is that more work that you’re referring to?
Dan Tehan: Well, the more work is further investigations to be undertaken, and that’s what the report of the World Health Organisation said and was very clear about.
Hamish MacDonald: So, by whom and where?
Dan Tehan: Well, that will take place, the World Health Organisation will continue on that work. They said that it was a preliminary report and that more work needed to be done and, obviously, we’ll work with other countries on that further work. And that’s why we’ve been very clear that there was a first stage in the process and now we’re waiting for the second stage to take place, consistent with what the World Health Organisation preliminary report called for.
Hamish MacDonald: So that’s the only thing that the Australian government is interested in? Because I note that in the speech the Prime Minister refers to Joe Biden’s recent statement around bolstering and accelerating efforts. Biden order his intelligence community to redouble its investigation into the lab leak theory. So, are you talking about individual nations investigating this through their intelligence agencies?
Dan Tehan: Well, obviously, individual countries will do what they think is necessary to try and provide the information that caused – that led to the cause of this pandemic. We will work with all countries as we try to continually investigate what happened and reach a conclusion, so that we know that we’ve done everything we can to try and prevent a similar pandemic occurring again. This has had enormous economic devastation and health devastation across the globe.
Hamish MacDonald: Sure.
Dan Tehan: And we want to make sure that we’ve got to the bottom of it.
Hamish MacDonald: I just want to be clear, though, about what you’re saying there. Australia will work with the United States in investigating this outside of the WHO process that you initially referred to?
Dan Tehan: No, we will work with all countries within the process of the World Health Organisation but, obviously, we will continue to cooperate with other countries as they seek to investigate the cause.
Hamish MacDonald: So both at once?
Dan Tehan: Well, we obviously stay in close contact with countries around the world as we seek to get to the bottom as to what happened, but all this will ultimately be done through the processes of the World Health Organisation.
Hamish MacDonald: Okay. Australia is taking China to the World Trade Organisation over its beef tariffs. Wine could be next. In his speech today the Prime Minister will reiterate a position that has already been put around the measures that the WTO can take in dispute settlement. He says in this speech – or a draft of it – “The most practical way to address economic coercion is the restoration of the WTO’s dispute settlement system. Where there are no consequences for the coercive behaviour there is little incentive for restraint.” If there is an overhaul of the trade rules, would you expect China to abide by them?
Dan Tehan: Well, China have made very clear that they believe in the dispute settlement system of the WTO. As a matter of fact, they joined with Australia to put in place the measures that enabled the dispute settlement to continue to take place at the moment—and they have used the dispute settlement mechanism themselves. So, our expectation is that all countries who are members of the World Trade Organisation will adhere to dispute settlement.
Hamish MacDonald: Are you going to be reliant on support from the G7 countries to basically toughen up this trade umpire?
Dan Tehan: Well, one of the problems at the moment is that we do not have an appellate body that is properly functioning and we need G7 countries to agree to reform the appellate body and the dispute settlement mechanism so that we can get it properly functioning again. And we need G7 countries on board to do that so that we can get the reform that we need at the World Trade Organisation.
Hamish MacDonald: Is that going to be enough, though, to resolve the squabbling between China and the United States around the WTO? That’s really been the sticking point in relation to the appellate body and the appointment of those individuals to oversee it?
Dan Tehan: Well, the best way that we can protect our interests is through having a proper functioning dispute settlement mechanism because that means when the economic heavyweights are in dispute, there is an independent umpire, and there is a body which sets the rules that they have to adhere to. Otherwise, we get caught in the wash of these big economic disputes. So that’s why the World Trade Organisation has been so important to us as a nation in the last 20 to 30 years and why we must continue to press for all countries to use it. It sets the global trade rules, and it adjudicates the global trade rules—and that’s incredibly important for a country of our size.
Hamish MacDonald: You’ve been in talks with wine producers over whether to take China to the WTO over its anti- dumping tariffs. Will that action now be proceeding?
Dan Tehan: So, I had further consultations with the wine industry yesterday in South Australia, and the government is now finalising the decision that we’ll take. But we’ve said all along that we would take a very principled approach to these types of decisions. So, where we think our industry has been harmed or injured, then we think we need to use all mechanisms available to us to try and address that. So, we’ve obviously tried it at an official level with China. We haven’t been able to be successful through the official levels, channels, so now we are seriously looking at taking that next step of going to the WTO.
Hamish MacDonald: Reading through the Prime Minister’s draft speech today, there is a lot of discussion about managing strategic competition with China. It talks about requiring active cooperation. But it’s pretty clear that the Prime Minister sees China as a challenge long term. It’s clear, though, that he doesn’t want conflict. Does that mean that Australia’s given up on a better relationship with China? Is that a reasonable interpretation of this speech?
Dan Tehan: No. We still want very constructive engagement with China. We want to be able to sit down and talk with them. I’m still waiting for a response to a very detailed letter that I sent in January calling for, or asking for, us to be able to sit down and work through the issues that we’re currently dealing with. Our view still is that the best thing we can do is sit down and talk. It might be that we agree to disagree on certain things, but the best thing we can do is sit down and talk.
Hamish MacDonald: But this entire speech outlines the way in which the rest of the world might manage China. It’s hardly an olive branch.
Dan Tehan: What this is, is setting out the approach that we want to take when it comes to our foreign policy, when it comes to our trade policy, when it comes to how we will engage with the G7. It points out how important it is that Liberal democracies around the world come together and work together to protect freedom. It’s an incredibly important speech, but it also makes very clear that we want all countries using the existing rules globally and making sure they adhere to those rules because that’s the best way that we can make sure that we have a very stable and peaceful globe. And that’s what we’re seeking to achieve.
Hamish MacDonald: Scott Morrison during his visit to the UK will hold separate talks with Boris Johnson. Will they seal the free trade agreement? Is it now a done deal?
Dan Tehan: No. I was on the phone to my counterpart Liz Truss last night. We were speaking for about an hour and a half. We’ll be speaking again tonight. We spoke on Monday night. So, like all these things, there will be i’s being dotted, t’s being crossed right down to the wire. Our hope is that we will be in a position for the two PMs to announce an agreement in principle next week. But we’ve still got more work to do and, in the end, we’ll make sure that this deal is in Australia’s national interests before we sign up to it.
Hamish MacDonald: Some late nights?
Dan Tehan: Some late nights and early mornings, Hamish.
Hamish MacDonald: Dan Tehan, thanks very much for your time.
Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you.
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