Interview with Jane Norman, ABC News

  • Transcript
Subjects: Australia Post, vaccines
14 April 2021

Jane Norman: Well, I'm joined now in the studio by the Trade Minister, Dan Tehan, before he flies out to Europe. Minister, thanks for your time.

Dan Tehan: Pleasure, Jane.

Norman: Now, I want to get to this European trip in just a moment but just sticking with this issue of Christine Holgate, the Prime Minister today has expressed his regret at causing this distress but why won't he just say sorry?

Tehan: Well, look, the Prime Minister addressed this today, I think I'll leave it up to him. He's obviously made the comments that he's made, but I will say one other thing. It's a bit rich of the opposition —as a matter of fact, quite hypocritical —for them to be out criticising when the Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, actually said that the CEO's position was untenable and he doesn't seem to be wanting to be taking any personal responsibility himself.

Norman: Yesterday, the chair of the Australia Post board blamed the environment that Parliament created for Ms Holgate's ultimate departure from the role. She says she was humiliated, she was bullied, she was, in her words, run over by a bus. Do you think she deserves an apology over the way she was treated?

Tehan: Look, we all know that the Parliament can be rough and ready and things that will be said on both sides of the Chamber which you know, they can be quite frank, but I think this matter has been addressed. The Prime Minister has expressed his regret and now, I think, the Leader of the Opposition, rather than just looking completely and utterly hypocritical, should just let this issue go.

Norman: Do you think it's a concern, though, or does it kind of make you sort of pause and reflect, the fact that the Prime Minister has described the environment as willing, you've described it as rough, but another person who is on the receiving end of this can interpret that as humiliation and bullying. Like, does it stop and make you think about just how willing Parliament gets?

Tehan: Well, the thing about the Parliament, and this is where you've got to try and get the balance right, is also a place where the heart of our democracy is fought out, and over many, many years. That has been-there has been a lot of rough and tumble but it does mean that issues are dealt with, dealt with very frankly —and, so look, you can look at these things and say, okay could we make the Parliament a softer and gentler place? But also, I think, we've got to ensure that democracy needs to be fought for and there will be exchange of ideas, exchange of words, in the Parliament and occasionally it will be willing. But it is an important part of our democratic processes, so it's all about trying to get the balance right.

Norman: This has been a really messy affair, though, hasn't it? Because we're left in this position now where Christine Holgate wants an apology, the Prime Minister says he won't be issuing that apology. She says the status of her contract is still unclear, meanwhile another chief executive has been appointed to replace her. I mean what do you think Australians looking on at this whole saga would think about Australia Post right now?

Tehan: What Australians should be reassured of is that Australia Post will continue to be delivering their letters, it will continue to deliver their parcels and that the management of Australia Post is doing everything it can to make sure that the organisation runs as effectively and as efficiently as it possibly can.

Norman: It looks pretty shambolic, though, doesn't it?

Tehan: Well, obviously, we've got to make sure that as the transition to the new CEO that we continue the continuity, we've got the same board in place. But the most important thing for Australians is that the focus is on delivering those important services, and that is where I know the Communications Minister wants the focus to be and I'm sure that's where the board and the new CEO want the focus to be.

Norman: Where is the Communications Minister, Paul Fletcher? He's responsible for Australia Post, he hasn't spoken yesterday or today. These are some really serious allegations that have been levelled by Ms Holgate and then I suppose a whole other account has been given by the chair of Australia board?

Tehan: Look, I'm not quite sure where Paul's diary's at. I know yesterday we were preparing for the budget and he was part of those preparations, so I'm not quite sure where he is today. I think I did see or hear that he was doing some media this afternoon on this, but I'm not quite sure, and I haven't had a look at his diary. I have been busy trying to clear my own and make sure I've got everything ready for this trip that I'll be taking- well starting on this afternoon.

Norman: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. So your portfolio, you're heading to Europe, you're off to seal some trade deals, try to counter vaccine nationalism that we've been seeing particularly from the European Union. How are you going to secure more supplies of vaccines to get to Australia?

Tehan: Well, the first port of call will be Geneva and I'll be meeting with the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, and she's been very critical of export restrictions being put in place and thinks we need to take another approach and that is trying to increase production and supply. So, I'll be sitting down with her. She's been talking with other trade ministers and other countries about this and trying to work out, okay, what is an approach which wouldn't see countries restricting contracts and restricting supply, not allowing contracts to be honoured, and whether there are other ways and means we can do that —and that's why that'll be my first point of call.

Norman: Is it likely that these outstanding 3 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab that we've ordered from Europe will end up just coming from the UK? Because I understand the 700,000 doses we've received so far have come from the UK which is, obviously, not part of the EU, and therefore not, I suppose, subject to these export controls?

Tehan: Well, the hope is that the million doses that we want to go to PNG will come from the EU, and we did see a bit of a breakthrough a week or so ago when an EU spokesperson came out and said that they weren't restricting or limiting contracts. So, one of the things that I'll be seeking is advice on that when I go to the European Union and meet with my counterpart there, is exactly where the contract is at and especially for those one million doses for PNG. The situation is very fraught with regards to COVID in PNG at the moment and the case I'll be making is that PNG really needs those one million doses.

Norman: So, the EU did- the European Commission did say that they'd only blocked one shipment, and that was coming from Italy. Since they made those public comments, have you sought to clarify just where the rest of our export applications are at? To actually get the rest of the doses here?

Tehan: Yes, we have, and one of the things I'll be doing on the ground is also seeking further clarity on that. Because what- it's a fraught issue, because they're saying that they haven't been stopping them but what they've been saying is also that it isn't worth AstraZeneca putting in the permits to be able to export the doses. So, what we've got to do is get some real clarity around, okay, if AstraZeneca put in the permit for 1 million doses to go to PNG, will that export be able to take place? So that will be one of the things I'll be seeking to address over there.

Norman: Yeah, I mean, Australia has a very worthy reason to get these extra million doses for a humanitarian reason, to help our closest neighbour, but, I mean, has this whole episode kind of shown us that while we do like to talk ourselves up, Australia is just at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to the world of diplomacy? Particularly if you're a European?

Tehan: Well, I think, what it shows is that, the rest of the world, I think, looks with envy on Australia and New Zealand and says, well, the way that you've managed and dealt with COVID-19, there is probably a case for us to address the issues that we've gotten —in the instance, where they had their third wave. I think they, very much, felt like those doses needed to be in Italy rather than here in Australia. So, that's one of the points that, I think, I really need to make, is this isn't just about Australia, even though we've dealt very well with COVID-19, it's about being able to plan vaccine rollout here, and knowing when we've got contracts that they'll be honoured. But also, more importantly, is to make sure that countries like PNG and others in our region can plan a vaccine rollout as well because they desperately need the doses.

Norman: Are you confident that AstraZeneca will actually honour its contract? That we will get these 3 million doses? And if they don't, what kind of recourse do we have?

Tehan: Look, that's my hope, and that's one of the reasons why I want to go to Brussels and to be able to have those conversations. So, I'll be in a much better position to get a steer on that after I've had those conversations in Brussels —but that's the hope. But, obviously, very difficult times —major pandemic, the like the world hasn't seen for probably a hundred years —so these are difficult times, and challenging times, and we'll do what we can to try and get a much clearer picture of the situation.

Norman: Alright, well, on Sunday, you said that, in terms of our own nationwide vaccine rollout here, that you hoped that by Christmas [Audio skip] Australians will have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Is that still your hope?

Tehan: Well, it's still the hope, but I also said at the time that we're in the middle of a pandemic, things are changing. Obviously, we've had the advice from our medical experts that AstraZeneca should only be used for those who are over 50. So that changes the equation big time. So look, that's the hope but things change in a pandemic, and we've got to make sure that, really, what we're doing is seeking to get as many people vaccinated as soon as we can. And that will now be the focus of National Cabinet, that's why it's meeting —will be meeting twice every week —so that they can really focus on making sure that that plan for the vaccine rollout, that we can get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible. But we have to remember we are in a pandemic, we've already seen what's happened, or what can potentially happen, to supply with those three million doses that we thought were going to arrive from AstraZeneca which didn't. So, we're just going to have to do what we can and try and get as many people vaccinated as soon as we possibly can.

Norman: The rollout clearly isn't going well, that's why the PM is now having two National Cabinet meetings a week. The Government has missed every one of its targets, even though the Prime Minister nominated this rollout as his key priority for this year. Was one of the mistakes here raising expectations that there were too many uncertainties, to know whether you could meet them or not?

Tehan: Well, the- look, you could say that, but the thing is, we're in a pandemic. So, what we were trying to do is steer and have a plan to try and get a rollout done, given under a certain timeframe. But things have happened, including third waves – excuse me – right across the world which, obviously, has put a lot more pressure on the supply of the vaccine. So, I think it's great that National Cabinet will be meeting twice a week and be able to put a plan in place. But I think, also, part of that planning is going to have to take into consideration the fact that we are in a pandemic, and the hope that we will [Audio skip] it's starting to be addressed internationally, but it might not. So, how that plan goes and what we do, I think, will now take into consideration what's happening globally, and the pressures that's coming on supply of the vaccine.

Norman: Alright, and Dan Tehan, before I let you go, because I know you actually do have to get a plane out of here. You've been vaccinated against COVID-19, what was your experience?

Tehan: So, I had the AstraZeneca vaccine. I was a little bit sore in the arm, and the body felt like it was fighting the vaccine for about 12 hours. But I was- we had parliament, so I got it on the Thursday of the Parliament, the next Thursday at 6 o'clock I was on a flight down to Portland, where we announced that Portland aluminium would continue for five years —which was a great day —and so I was able to, very much, continue on normal course of work. But I don't have the hugest biceps in the world, so the arm was a little bit sore.

Norman: Alright. Okay, well, thanks Dan Tehan for your time today.

Tehan: Thanks Jane.

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