Interview with Jim Wilson, 2GB

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: trade relations with China, future of tourism.
06 May 2021

Jim Wilson: The already strained relationship between China and Australia has hit a new low this afternoon. Earlier, Beijing has cut off all diplomatic contact with the Australian Government. They’ve suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue indefinitely. The move was announced by China’s Development and Reform Commission. This is the first major response to the cancellation of Victoria’s controversial Belt and Road agreement, and a decision that will make repairing our relationship even more difficult.

Dan Tehan is the Federal Trade Minister and he joins me live on the line after a two-hour Cabinet meeting. Minister, welcome back to Drive.

Dan Tehan: Always a pleasure to be with you, Jim.

Wilson: So, China has cut off all contact between key government officials below the ministerial level. What does this mean for our already strained relationship, Minister, with China?

Tehan: Well, it's disappointing, Jim, because there are issues that we need to work through with China, and the best way we can do that is through dialogue. We're not going to agree on all issues, but we should be able to sit down and work through issues as best we can—so this is disappointing. The dialogue hasn't been held since 2017, and our hope was that we might be able to get it resuming but, obviously, that's not going to be the case. As I've said all along, and I wrote to my Chinese counterpart in January, is we're very keen to engage at the ministerial level and, our hope is, over time, we'll be able to resume that ministerial dialogue.

Wilson: So, do you take this as being Beijing’s sort of get square as far as the Morrison Government's cancellation of the Victoria's- the Belt and Road agreement last month?

Tehan: We've always been clear that we would make decisions in our national interests. Decisions which protect our sovereignty. We've also been very clear that we want a constructive relationship with China. Our economies are complementary, and we have a very important trading relationship. So, our hope is that the China will seek to engage with us, and we'll be able to work through the current difficulties. Now, what decisions they make are ultimately up to them though.

Wilson: Okay. You scrapped the Belt and Road agreement last month. Will you rip up the Port of Darwin agreement?

Tehan: At the moment that is being looked at by the Department of Defence, and that decision will be made in accordance to our national interests. What we're focused on is to make sure that we continue to say to China that we do want to engage, that we want to engage constructively, that the trading and economic relationship is an important one. It's helped China lift millions out of poverty; it's helped us improve our standard of living, and our hope is that we will be able to have some sort of engagement over the coming months and years and, especially, at the ministerial level.

Wilson: So, the Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, said earlier today that it’s unlikely that agreement will be torn up with the Port of Darwin. But does it remain on the table that that is a possibility, that it could be ripped up?

Tehan: It's being looked at by the Department of Defence, and they'll come back with advice to the Government. So, we'll wait and see what that advice is.

Wilson: You're relatively new to the trade portfolio, Minister, have you ever spoken to your Chinese trade counterpart?

Tehan: No. I obviously was appointed just before Christmas and I wrote to my Chinese counterpart in January, saying that I was keen to engage. But when I became Trade Minister, there were three broad principles that I set out as how I would do the job. One, I would be proactive; the second I would be principled; and the third I would be patient. And, having written to my Chinese counterpart, setting out all the areas that we could engage and the interest that we have in engaging, I'm waiting for a response to that letter, but I haven't got a response so far.

Wilson: So, when you received that news earlier this afternoon, were you shocked by the move by Beijing to call off all diplomatic relations with Australia?

Tehan: It’s not all diplomatic relations with Australia. So, at the official level, engagement will continue to take place. This is just part of our ministerial dialogue that we have and, obviously, we haven't had a meeting since 2017. So, we will continue to say to China that we want to sit down and that we want to talk—and our officials will continue to talk. But what this means is that it doesn't look like we'll be able to have a ministerial dialogue for some months to come.

Wilson: Now, let's talk about this $9 million tourism campaign that you've launched today to encourage Australians to travel further afield and take a longer holiday. In light of what's happened in New South Wales with these two positive cases and the possibility that premiers and other states might shut the borders again, might make this a fairly hard sell, this new campaign.

Tehan: My hope is that that premiers and territory leaders will use contact tracing and testing as a first response, rather than looking to close borders. That's in the best interests of the 600,000 people that are employed in our tourism industry. And if we can use our testing and our contact tracing as our first response, it means that people will continue to have that confidence to travel. And we've seen our domestic tourism industry rebound very strongly as we've come out of the pandemic. And we want to see that continue, because not only is it great for the 600,000 jobs in our tourism industry, but it's also great for people to take an extended break. To take that one or two-week holiday and go further afield. It's good to help you recuperate. It's good for your relationships. There's many positives that you get from it. And this campaign is all about encouraging people to go further afield and stay longer because it's in the interests of our tourism industry. And it's also great for you.

Wilson: I read a report earlier today that we might not be flying internationally or long haul internationally until the end of 2022. Is that realistic at this stage?

Tehan: We continue to monitor the situation globally. We're seeing third waves, particularly in India and other places, where obviously that means that we're probably pushing back when we had hoped to have the international border open. We've got the travel bubble with New Zealand. There is the potential that we might be able to look at more bubbles down the track but, really, at the moment, it's a wait and see—and, ultimately, it will depend in large part on the advice we get from our medical experts as to when it's safe to open our borders. And obviously, the vaccine will also play a large part in that as well.

Wilson: Just quickly on the situation in India before I let you go. What will it take to end the ban on incoming flights from the sub-continent? Is 15 May when you lift the ban, or will you extend it?

Tehan: Look, we’ve said that this is a temporary measure that would run up until 15 May. So, I think all of us hope that it will remain a temporary measure and will only remain in place until 15 May. But, ultimately, we’ve got to listen to the medical experts again on that, consult state and territories, and then decide what the final decision will be as to when it will be lifted. But I think all of us hope that this will be a temporary measure which can be lifted on 15 May. 

Wilson: Minister, always good to chat. Thanks for your time this afternoon.

Tehan: Pleasure, Jim.

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