Interview with Madeleine Morris, ABC Breakfast
Madeleine Morris: Well, let's get more on one of the other main stories we are following this morning—those continuing trade tensions with China. The Trade and Tourism Minister, Dan Tehan, joins us now. Good morning to you, Minister.
Dan Tehan: Good morning Madeleine. Great to be with you.
Morris: So, China has torn up the Strategic Economic Dialogue, it was a meeting effectively, it suspended that with Australia. What does that actually mean in practice for us?
Tehan: Well, we haven't held the Dialogue since 2017 so what it means is that we're probably not going to be holding the dialogue going forward any time soon, which I've got to say is, is very disappointing. The best way that we can work through our differences with China is to sit down and talk about them, work through them, so that we each understand where we're coming from. So, this is obviously disappointing, but we'll continue to say to China that we want to sit down and talk and we want to work through the current issues that we’re facing.
Morris: The business community is really concerned about this. I mean, China remains our major trading partner. Where do you go from here?
Tehan: We've just got to continue to make sure that we're sending a clear message to China that we do want to sit down and work through these current issues and also, that we understand the importance of the economic relationship. It’s helped lift millions out of poverty in China, and it has helped us continue to improve our standard of living here in Australia. Our two economies are complementary and the best thing that both nations can do is sit down, work through these differences, and make sure that the economic relationship can continue because it benefits both countries.
Morris: If we want to continue the economic relationship, why did we tear up the Belt and Road Initiative between- agreement between Victoria and China? Which some people, some commentators, are saying this morning, look, China suspending this dialogue is a proportionate response to that – it’s no surprise?
Tehan: What we did was take a decision, as a national government, that all foreign policy decisions, and treaties, and MOUs, that are entered into should be done so at the national level and this was a country agnostic decision. And so we have taken decisions according to our national interests, according to our sovereignty, as all countries do, and we’ve explained that to China. And we want to make sure that we continue to say to China that we want to sit down and be able to have a dialogue with you, especially at the Ministerial level, so we can step you through these
decisions that we've taken, which are sovereign decisions about our national interests that are country agnostic, and are about making sure that the processes that we've got in place here in Australia lead to the Commonwealth, as the national government, making decisions when it comes to foreign policy.
Morris: How worried are you that China might go a further step and tear up our Free Trade Agreement, the CHAFTA, which is just so important for so many of our exporters?
Tehan: The decision that's being taken currently is one to put on hold the Economic Strategic Dialogue, and we haven't held that since 2017. So, my hope is that our officials will continue to be able to have a dialogue. That they’ll continue to be able to meet and work through these issues and, overtime, then we’ll see a Ministerial dialogue resume. And that’s what I'm hoping for, that is the message that I continue to send. I wrote to my Chinese counterpart who was appointed the same time I was, saying that I'm very keen to sit down with him and work through these issues and my hope is, over time, is that’s what we’ll see.
Morris: Just moving on to India, Minister. So, the ABC understands repatriation flights have been signed off, they are going to begin again after May 15, coming back from India—but only one a week. Now, assuming that you can get 200 people in that plane, that is still going to take four weeks for some of the most desperate, urgent cases —which currently stand at 900—to get back. Is that all that we’re going to be doing? One flight back a week?
Tehan: If the medical advice says so, we are keen to resume flights on the 15th. There are 900 vulnerable Australians, and our High Commissioner and consul generals are in contact with those Australians and will begin working through how we can begin the process of repatriating them. But, we also have to keep in mind that what we were seeing was a big uptick in cases at Howard Springs, up to 54. Now, the advice we have got is that that will be back down to zero by the 15th. So, if that’s the case, we’ll begin these repatriation flights but we want to do so in a way that our quarantine system can manage it, but also which has in mind addressing that issue about those most vulnerable Australians in India. So, we’ll work through this and do it in a very careful and systematic way.
Morris: [Talks over] So, will it be just one plane? Sorry to interrupt you there. Sorry to interrupt you there, Minister, but, will it just be that one repat flight a week? Are you looking at opening up commercial flights again? More repatriation flights? What– I mean, there are a lot of desperate Australians who are, who are eagerly awaiting the outcome of this. What more can you tell them this morning?
Tehan: What I can say is the Prime Minister will have more to say this morning on this but Australians should know that from the Federal Government what you will get is decisions which are taken, which will be focused on making sure we are listening to the expert medical advice. We are doing what we can to keep Australians safe both here and abroad, and we will be balancing all that and it’ll be based on the expert medical advice. That is what has got us through this pandemic, that’s the way that Australia has dealt with this pandemic, unique amongst only probably a few other countries in the world, as a standard setter. So, we’ll continue to take the expert medical advice on the repatriation of Australians from India…
Tehan: … making sure that we are keeping Australians safe at the same time.
Morris: Okay. Was it a mistake to criminalise Australians returning from India?
Tehan: We always said that these measures were temporary. They were based on the expert medical advice, and they’ve worked. We had 54 cases in Howard Springs, that number is now halved. We think it will be down to zero by 15 May. So, the actions that we took, based on expert medical advice, they’ve worked, and that's how we will continue to operate because that's why we are a gold standard when it comes to the rest of the world as to how we have been able to deal with this pandemic.
Morris: Just one more question for you, Minister. The US now says that it supports waiving patents for those vital COVID vaccines, will Australia support the US in that?
Tehan: Yes, we’ve said that we, we will support the US. We want to see this worked through at the World Trade Organization so that we can see more vaccines produced so that we can deal with this global pandemic. Now, the TRIPPS waiver will be an important part of trying to get a resolution in the World Trade Organization, but there are many other parts to these discussions as well which will be equally as important. We’ve got to work with the pharmaceutical companies, with the manufacturers, to make sure we get a very good balanced outcome which is focused on getting more vaccines produced and that’s the approach that Australia has been taking. I discussed this with the Director-General of the World Trade Organization when I was in Geneva a couple of weeks ago, and we've made it very clear we want to work cooperatively, take a leadership role, and make sure we get an outcome where we get more vaccines being produced so we can deal with this global pandemic.
Morris: Australian Trade Minister, Dan Tehan. Thanks for joining us this morning.
Tehan: Pleasure, Madeleine.