Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sunday Agenda

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Omicron variant; WTO meeting; China; CPTPP; Parliament.
28 November 2021

KIERAN GILBERT: Let's go live to Geneva. In Switzerland, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Dan Tehan, joins me. Minister, thank you very much for your time. You arrived in Geneva to be told that the WTO meetings that you were there to attend, had been cancelled due to Omicron. Explain to us what's going on over there and the sort of havoc it's creating.

DAN TEHAN: So, Kieran, I was obviously in the air, I took the 17 hour flight from Darwin to London and when I got off the plane heard the news that the WTO MC12, the ministerial meeting had been postponed. They took the decision that because seven, eight or nine Southern African countries couldn't attend in person, and it's a consensus-based organisation you need all 164 countries to agree to be able to get rules changed, that the meeting would need to be postponed because those countries couldn't attend.

Also, there was, the variant was found in Brussels so there was also something done to stop people from Brussels coming. So obviously incredibly disappointing for this ministerial meeting, a lot of time and effort that has gone into it. It's incredibly important that we continue to set global trading rules not only for Australia but for all our trading partners. And I will meet with the Director-General of the WTO tomorrow, plus the chair and the other vice chairs, Australia was a vice chair at this meeting to work out what we will do to proceed with MC12 now, when it will take place next year, whether there will be virtual meetings in between that, so important discussions with the Director-General of the WTO tomorrow.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, I will ask you a bit more on that trade specific reform issue in a moment. But on the Omicron matter, is the federal government considering shutting the international borders altogether? Apparently, some state medical officials have urged the government to do that. Is that on the table?

DAN TEHAN: Look, the federal government, as we have always throughout this pandemic, will take the advice of the AHPPC in the decisions that it makes. Obviously, the world at the moment is studying this new variant to see what potential impacts it might have. We’ve, as the health minister said, taking a very cautionary approach in stopping direct flights and stopping people who have been in those countries from coming to Australia. Or if you're an Australian, you obviously have to do 14 days quarantine when you return to Australia. So we've taken a cautionary approach. That's what we'll continue to take as we work through what this variant is all about, what potential impacts it might have.

So decisions will be made based on that expert medical advice, and that's what stood us in such good stead. That's why we've got record low numbers of death compared to other countries here in Australia. It’s why we’ve been able to generate our economy throughout this pandemic and make sure that we're coming out the other end stronger.

KIERAN GILBERT: Is there a chance you might hit the pause button on those plans for December 1st to ease the restrictions on those with AG visas, student visas, those who were meant to start travelling from Japan and Korea. Is there a chance you might hit the pause button on that?

DAN TEHAN: Well, we'll take the expert medical advice, but so far we think that we've put the procedures in place and the protocols in place that will enable us to have time to assess this variant and then make calculated decisions once we know more about this new variant.

But at this stage, we think we've got the settings right, taking the decision about preventing people from those Southern African countries being able to come to Australia and then the states and territories have also said, New South Wales, Victoria, and as a result, the ACT, obviously there's that 72 hours quarantine period that will be required as well from people returning. So we think that that's got the balance right at the moment. But there's obviously more work that needs to be done in understanding this new variant and the potential impacts it might have.

KIERAN GILBERT: And I guess one of those impacts or otherwise, is to look at the severity of the disease. Angelique Coetzee, she's the chair of the South African Medical Association. She has said overnight that this variant results in mild disease without prominent symptoms. So let's hope that that is the case. I guess that's the best-case scenario, isn't it?

DAN TEHAN: Look, it is. And let's hope that is the case because Australia is opening up. Our economy is starting to kick into fourth, and then all the forecasts are it will go into fifth gear. So we want to make sure that we can continue that opening up, especially for our tourism industry, the 660,000 jobs in our tourism industry. To have South Korea and Japan join Singapore on 1 December is great news. To have international students back is so important for our universities, but also for our soft diplomacy in the region, and to obviously get that workforce back in that AG workforce, the working holiday maker visa holders, so important for all those businesses who are looking for people to fill jobs.

So let's hope that once the work is done on what these new variants, what the attributes it is that we'll be able to continue opening up the country because ultimately, that's what we want to see happen.

KIERAN GILBERT: Indeed, I think everyone watching agrees with that. Now, a few other matters. China, the Defence Minister, your colleague, Peter Dutton, very clear and blunt on that threat in his speech to the Press Club on Friday and his various other statements recently, how does that work strategically, from the Federal Government's perspective, to be so frank or clear when it comes to the China issue.

DAN TEHAN: Well we've always been clear that the geostrategic competition in the Indo Pacific is probably the biggest challenge that this nation faces, or is the biggest challenge that this nation faces. And we've been doing everything we can to make sure that we can deal with that geostrategic competition from a position of strength. We want to make sure that we've got our military in a strong position, we've got to make sure that we've got our diplomacy in a strong position.

KIERAN GILBERT: Peter Dutton talks about the missile range to all the Australian cities, and the language is different to just talking about geostrategic competition. Why is that blunt approach to our favour when it comes to our strategic outlook?

DAN TEHAN: Well, we've always been very clear as to the changing dynamics in the Indo Pacific region. And what Peter is doing is setting out the facts. If we don't get this right and we all want a peaceful and prosperous Indo Pacific, but if we don't, then there could be serious challenges that this nation will face. And that's why we're working so hard to get a peaceful and prosperous Indo Pacific region. It’s why we're working with our allies. It’s why the formation of the Quad has been so important, because we want to make sure that the benefits that we've seen from a region where peace and prosperity has been at the forefront, where we've seen millions lifted out of poverty, where we've seen our standard of living continue to increase, will continue. And the best way that we can do that is make sure we've got rules set in the Indo Pacific and that we know that everyone is focused on a peaceful and prosperous region going forward.

KIERAN GILBERT: Penny Wong says Peter Dutton is amping up the threat of war. What do you say to that now?

DAN TEHAN: No, what this is about is making sure that we're doing everything we can to prevent war. That is what we're doing. And that is why the government thinks to do that, you have to do it from a position of strength. You've got to show very strong leadership.

Now if the opposition think you do that, and you try and create a peaceful and prosperous Indo Pacific from a position of weakness that's up for them. We think you do it from a position of strength, and that's why AUKUS has been so important. That's why setting up the Quad has been so important. That’s why the meetings that I had last week meeting with the US Commerce Secretary about Indo Pacific framework that the US wants to put in place will be so important. All these things, in the end, will lead to a more peaceful, more prosperous region and that's in everyone's interest.

KIERAN GILBERT: China, I'll just go back on that trade reform issue, China wants to sign up to this regional big trade deal to call the CPTPP. It's a big acronym as well. But some analysts say that you and the government should work with China to encourage them to be a part of that deal, that we finally have some leverage. And as part of getting them into the deal, they'd have to end that economic and trade coercion they've been imposing upon us. Does that make sense to you?

DAN TEHAN: Well look, what we've been making very clear to China is if they do want to accede to the CPTPP, which is the gold standard regional trade agreement in the Indo Pacific, that they would have to be able to talk to us at the ministerial level, so the ministerial dialogue would have to get going. That's just a natural thing.

The UK are trying to do exactly the same thing at the moment, accede to the CPTPP. I've been talking to the UK trade ministers nearly every week this year as we go through the FTA, which will be part of the accession process. So we will need to be able to talk to the Chinese at the ministry level to do that. We also need a firm commitment from them to sign up to the gold standards that are in this agreement and they have to commit to that, and also economic coercion has no place in an agreement like CPTPP. So, they're just the sort of common sense things that we would need to see for China to be able to see.

KIERAN GILBERT: Finally, before you go, just quickly, what's your message to colleagues who have been crossing the floor, withholding their vote in the Parliament? It's been chaos in Federal Parliament, as you know, ahead of an election, disunity is death, isn't it?

DAN TEHAN: Well, look, all my colleagues I know understand that the thing that wins you elections is focusing on the Australian people. We're just coming out of a once in a century pandemic. That has to be our focus, is how we grow our economy out of that pandemic, how we make sure that we've got the national security in place to deal with the Indo Pacific strategic challenges that we're facing at the moment.

They're the key things that we need to be focusing on. And if you do that on a united front, everyone working together. That's how you get re-elected. And I'm sure my colleagues understand that. And as you have said, disunity is death, that's the first maxim of politics. And I'm sure my colleagues understand the Australian people want to see us united dealing with their issues, not doing things which distract us from doing that.

KIERAN GILBERT: Dan Tehan, Trade Minister, joining me live from Geneva. Thank you. Thanks for staying up late and chatting to us.

DAN TEHAN: Pleasure, Kieran.


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