Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Trade, Tourism and Investment portfolio, Australia-US relationship, Australia-China relationship, Support for the tourism sector
27 January 2021

Kieran Gilbert: I'm joined now by the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan. Minister, thanks so much for your time. Appreciate it. I know you've just come out of government meetings, but Andrew Clennell, my colleague, reported earlier about this gas plant in the Hunter. The Prime Minister said he'd build it if the private sector doesn't, or the Government would. With this sort of policy, does it have international implications in terms of our relations, like with the United States and others, particularly with Joe Biden threatening things like carbon adjustment fees and quotas and so on on countries who are not doing the right thing when it comes to the environment? Is that the sort of retaliation you could see for a gas-led recovery, as the Government argues?

Dan Tehan: Well, when it comes to our trade and investment policy, we're going to be very proactive, we're going to be very principled, and, where necessary, we're going to be patient. And, when it comes to our principles, we obviously want to do our bit when it comes to reducing emissions globally. But, in terms of those principles, what we don't want to see is countries putting carbon tariffs or such things in place to achieve their goals. So, we'll work with the Biden administration on how we go about emissions reduction. Angus Taylor has already had a phone call with John Kerry where they've had a very detailed discussion around these areas and, as of my understanding from reading it is, they had a very detailed discussion around how technology can play a key role in emissions reduction. So, I think what you'll see from us is a very proactive and very principled approach when it comes to these issues.

Gilbert: So, are those international implications, like the fact that Biden's now in the White House and John Kerry is going to be the Envoy for Climate Change, and so on, are those things on the Government's radar when it comes to this other message about a gas-led recovery? It just doesn't seem aligned to the changes internationally. Is the Government aware of that?

Tehan: Oh look, we obviously are very aware of the need for us to engage with the Biden administration, like we have with previous US administrations. I mean, we understand that we have to be active in the way that we engage, that we are very, you know, going to great detail around what we're doing with regards to our emissions reduction agenda. And, that's already started. I mean, Angus and John Kerry have already had a very long and detailed discussion on this, and you can expect to see a lot more detailed discussions right across the Biden administration, as you would expect with a new US administration from any Australian Government. That's the approach we always take because, obviously, they're a absolutely key partner of us.

Gilbert: They certainly are the most important ally, but you've gone from a situation where, I guess, Donald Trump wasn't, maybe not of like mind to the Morrison Government. But, certainly, the Biden administration isn't. In one of his first few acts, he put a ban on fracking and oil extraction from federal land, at the same time as our Government is looking at possibly building a gas plant. There's quite a divergence there.

Tehan: Look, I would beg to disagree. I think there's still a lot of gas exploration taking place in the US, and there's also a lot of gas drilling taking place. Obviously, they've made decisions around fracking, one form of how you go about doing that, and there's certain geographical areas where they've sought to overturn some of the Trump administration's decisions. But, in terms of how we approach the Biden administration on emissions reduction on other areas, this will be one where we have very open and frank discussions. I think you're going to see a lot of like-mindedness in the approaches that we're taking. And, look, I just know personally, I'm looking forward to engaging with the US administration on the trade and investment front, once the USTR has, obviously, been sworn in. And, I know all my Cabinet colleagues are looking forward to doing exactly the same with their counterparts in the Biden administration.

Gilbert: The FTA negotiations we've got with the EU, with the UK, again, it goes back to those views on climate, though, doesn't it, in terms of, if you want to get a deal done as Trade Minister with the UK and with the EU, does there have to be a bit of wiggle room from the Government when it comes to those issues, because, obviously, the UK and the EU very much forward-leaning on the climate response.

Tehan: Yeah. But, look, so are we, Kieran, and the approach that we've taken internationally, our record stands better than most. As a previous diplomat who went to a COP in Buenos Aires, I can tell you Australia plays a leading role in seeking agreement and getting all countries to play their part in reducing emissions, and we'll continue to play that role. And, not only do we play a role in getting countries to commit, but our record of them achieving those commitments is second to none. So, I've got no problems whatsoever engaging, whether it be with the Biden administration, with the EU, or with the UK on this, because we can stand on our record more than most countries, and that's what we'll continue to do. And, we'll continue to play a very proactive and principled role, in whether it be with emissions reduction, whether it be on trade liberalisation, investment liberalisation, because our record as a nation is a very good one.

Gilbert: And, on the trade liberalisation front, would you like to see Joe Biden, do you think there's any prospect that President Biden will sign the US back onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that big regional deal, which the US initially was a part of under Obama, fell away subsequently?

Tehan: Look, I think it would be in our national interest and in the US' national interest for them to re-join the TPP, or the CPTPP, as it's called now. I think that would be a really good outcome. Now, whether they're in a position to do so in the first 12 months of their administration, obviously, that's up to them, and they've got to make that decision themselves. But, from an Australian point of view, I think it would be very welcome if we could get the US back engaged in the CPTPP.

Gilbert: The China relationship – now, you've been tasked with one of the more difficult things in Government, the effort to try and reopen the lines of communication, which your predecessor was unable to with your counterpart. Is there any hope of you achieving that?

Tehan: Oh look, you know, it's a challenge. We haven't had a formal trade ministers meeting with China now for well over three years, but we have a new Commerce Minister now who's just been appointed in China – was appointed around the same time that I was. And, I've written to the Chinese Commerce Minister saying that we'd like to constructively engage. And, look, I'll wait and see. And, as I've said, what we want to do is be proactive, principled and patient. So, I'll be patient and wait to see whether we get a reply, because …

Gilbert: … Can you give us an insight into what you said in the letter?

Tehan: Look, I won't go into detail out of respect for the new Chinese Commerce Minister, but there are many ways that we can constructively engage across the trade and investment liberalisation path. So, that's what I would like to see, but I won't go into the specific details.

Gilbert: Not an easy drafting exercise, though, to put that letter together, given where the relationship is at. Did you reach out to anyone in terms of doing that? Because, obviously, it's a piece of correspondence of great significance, when we can't even get a phone call. Yesterday, the New Zealand Government signed an expanded free trade agreement with that very individual you're talking about there, Chinese Commerce Minister.

Tehan: Yeah, look, I, over the Christmas, New Year period, I probably didn't have the vacation that I thought I might have been, so I've been speaking to previous Australian trade ministers. You know, we've got a great record when it comes to trade and investment liberalisation. So, I've spoken to Andrew Robb, I've spoken to Mark Vaile. I've spoken to former heads of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, like Peter Varghese, a dep secretary in trade, but someone who I respect greatly, Peter Grey, and other people. So, I've spoken to a lot of people to seek advice, not just on how we deal with China, but also with the UK and the EU, because they're very important that we get free trade agreements with them. The India relationship – which is incredibly important to us, and I'd really like to prioritise that – is something we're going to have to be patient about. But, there is no reason why we, you know, that patience shouldn't also have a great level of proactivity to it. So, there's, I've had numerous conversations. Obviously, how we re-engage or engage with the Biden administration is going to be critical, as well. So, there's a lot for us to do. Vietnam, you know, is a real opportunity for us to build on the great inroads we've been able to make there. So, there's a lot of opportunities. Japan, you know, another key ally, another key trading partner. There's a hell of a lot for us to do.

Gilbert: So, there are opportunities there …

Tehan: … Absolutely …

Gilbert: … but there are also huge challenges. If you look at the China situation, as I said earlier, New Zealand's just signed that expanded FTA, the US still has large amounts of Chinese investment. The EU secured market access for their companies in China, and vice versa. Are we out of step with other Western nations? And, if so, can we be pragmatic enough to get it back online?

Tehan: Well, if you look at our relationship with China, especially on the trade and investment front, you know, we're ahead of most countries because we put the free trade agreement, we've got the free trade agreement, which we negotiated under a Coalition Government. And, it's a very good free trade agreement, and, you know, our challenge now is to make sure that, you know, we use that free trade agreement that we've got with China to continue to grow the economic relationship in a very constructive way. And, that's what I will be seeking to do.

Gilbert: It's basically, I guess, just trying to get the face to face conversation. But, you look at President Xi, his speech to Davos Economic Forum, he warned about building circles or starting a new Cold War to threaten or intimidate others. Did you see a bit of irony in those comments?

Tehan: Well, he also spoke about the importance of trade liberalisation and investment liberalisation. And, I think what we've got to do is look at the positives from messages like that. We, obviously, you know, our whole trade policy is based on trade and investment liberalisation. So, what we've got to do is make sure that we can have that constructive dialogue, so that we can practice, you know, what we preach, because that's what we want to be doing in Australia. I'm sure that that's what President Xi is seeking to do from a Chinese perspective. So, let's be constructive in making sure that if we, you know, are really pushing for trade and investment liberalisation, that's what we're practising.

Gilbert: You're the Tourism Minister as well, now, as well as Trade and Investment. You're considering some targeted financial assistance to the tourism industry, because international travel, obviously, unlikely any time soon. Our indication has been that JobKeeper won't be extended for any sector, including tourism. Can you confirm that assistance will be in any, in another form?

Tehan: Well, obviously, the Government is going through the decision-making process around JobKeeper at the moment, and I won't make, you know, final decisions for the Treasurer. But, all, everything that the Treasurer has said and the Prime Minister has said has been very consistent that JobKeeper will end at the end of March. So, what we then have to look at and see, okay, is there the analysis there? Because there is the potential that we might be able to put in place some sort of targeted policies or targeted assistance for those sectors that are still being impacted by the pandemic. So, that's one of the things that I've been having discussions with the tourism industry about is, you know, and there's the other issue that we've got to deal with. Domestic tourism has held up pretty strongly in most parts of Australia throughout the pandemic, so it's only those parts of the tourism sector that have really been impacted by the international tourism. So …

Gilbert: … International. But, do you reassure those people, the mum and dad companies saying Cairns and other cities where it's not Qantas, it's not a big tourism company, but you won't be just providing financial assistance to the Qantas' of the world. You will remember those mum and dad companies, too?

Tehan: Oh, look, in all the engagements that I've had it's been not only about big companies, but small companies, as well, because, especially as someone who comes from regional and rural Australia, you know, it's those mums and dads, tourism businesses that we've also got to make sure that we're looking after. So, I've been having a lot of dialogue over the last three or four weeks when it comes to the tourism sector, a) to understand the issues that they're dealing with, and b) to say to them, you know, what do you think is needed to try and help and support you while we wait for the vaccine to be rolled out, while we wait for international travel to kick start again, which, hopefully, might be in forms of bubbles sometime this year. You would think highly unlikely that we're going to see mass international tourism back until next year, I would think, at the earliest. So, absolutely having those conversations, and we'll continue to have them.

Gilbert: Well, as Trade, Investment and Tourism Minister, Dan Tehan, you've got a huge job ahead of you. We wish you all the best in some of those. Thanks so much.

Tehan: Thanks, Kieran. Great to be with you.

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