Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC News

  • Transcript
Subjects: WA COVID-19 cases and lockdown, vaccination rollout.
26 April 2021

Patricia Karvelas: Dan Tehan is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. He joins me now and he’s quarantining too. Minister, welcome.

Dan Tehan: Pleasure to be with you, Patricia.

Karvelas: What's your reaction to reports that WA's lockdown was sparked by a man who travelled to India to get married?

Tehan: Look, obviously, what my reaction is to what's happening in Western Australia is that there’s been a three-day lockdown. There’s been no cases, as I understand it, reported today. They seem to have dealt with it effectively. I think that's a very good thing, and what we need to do is make sure that we continue operating under the National Cabinet umbrella to be able to deal with outbreaks when they occur and make sure that we can bring as many returning Australians home as-who need to return.

Karvelas: Okay. But as I say, the reason it started is that this person was given the allowance to go to India to get married. Do you think that's a good enough reason to go overseas?

Tehan: Well, obviously, National Cabinet meets, they consider all these things, and they work out what are the reasons why people can leave and how we can get people to return who want to return. So, what I would say is that it’s very good that we’ve got the states and territories working collaboratively with the Commonwealth as we work through all these issue.

Karvelas: Okay. So you’re not giving a view about whether you think going to India to get married is a good enough reason?

Tehan: Well, I don't know what the actual circumstances were that led to that person going to India to get married. I'm not quite sure whether that was in fact the reason why there was the outbreak. I returned from overseas myself last night, so I’d prefer to get right across the facts before I proffer a reason as to whether it was the right or wrong thing to do.

Karvelas: Okay, but you've been previously critical of snap lockdowns, or locking down, particularly with your tourism hat on, in terms of being able to have confidence in domestic travel as well. Do you think locking down for these three days has been an overreaction?

Tehan: Well, obviously, the most important thing is it’s dealt with-the outbreak. What I've said is the best thing is if we can use our contact tracing and testing as a first resort and use lockdowns as a last resort, that's the best way to give certainty to our aviation industry and our domestic tourism industry. And the more that states can initially use contact testing and tracing, that is the best way for us to be able to deal with outbreaks but, obviously, these lockdowns need to be used as a last resort if it's deemed necessary by the medical experts.

Karvelas: Okay. And in this case, would you say they used it as a first resort?

Tehan: To be perfectly frank, Patricia, I'm really not overly right across the details of it, so I'm not quite sure what efforts were made on their testing and tracing regimes before they went into the lockdown. But I still think that the best thing that we can all do is make sure that that’s used as the first response and then, only use the lockdowns as a last response. Now, if the medical experts in Western Australia deemed that’s what was necessary to deal with the outbreak, then obviously the West Australian State Government needs to follow that advice but my hope would be that the medical experts, now that we are 12 months in, would be able to say, ‘well, let's, in initial phase, use the testing and tracing regimes that we've put in place to be able to deal with the outbreak.

Karvelas: Are Australians still travelling to India despite last week's department tightening of departure exemptions? Are you concerned about Australians going to India given the high risk there?

Tehan: Well, these are all the things which are considered on a daily and weekly basis. It’s why it's so important that we’ve got National Cabinet so we can take the medical expert advice and look at these situations and understand what we need to-not what needs to be done, and I'm sure that our medical experts are looking at the serious situation in India at the moment and will be advising Government and giving them the advice that they think is necessary for us to keep Australia safe. And, as you know already, the number of returnees from India has been reduced but I'm sure that that continues to be monitored and we’re taking the expert medical advice when it comes to whether any more changes need to be made in that regard.

Karvelas: We know that you will be considering support to India, sending support to India. Do you think that's an important thing for Australia to do, to provide as much assistance to India given they are facing now a time of crisis?

Tehan: I think any country in a time of need requires our support and we should be doing what we can to help. Obviously, it’s very difficult times during a pandemic, but where we can help, then I think we should consider that, and if we can provide assistance, especially to India in this time of need, then my hope is that we will be able to help them. And I'm sure, and I know that our officials are in touch with the High Commission over in India at this time —assessing the situation, assessing what's required —and I'm sure we’ll be looking to do what we can to help and assist India at this moment.

Karvelas: I just want to move on to your mission. You, of course, as you say, just returned from overseas, to Europe where you were working on a number of different things. Just starting on your work with the European Commission, did the European Commission explain why they're happy to give PNG 1 million doses of AstraZeneca but won't give Australia anymore?

Tehan: Because PNG is a COVAX country, so it’s a developing country, and they’ve made it very clear that they wouldn't use their export transparency regime to prevent vaccines going to COVAX developing countries. So they said to me, as long as the 1 million vaccines are going directly to PNG, then there would be no need for AstraZeneca to even register under the export transparency regime in the EU.

Karvelas: I know you wanted 2.2 million doses from factories in Europe to increase our own supply, but that didn't quite work out. Can you walk me through what happened?

Tehan: So what the European Union has said is that, obviously, they have contractual arrangements also with AstraZeneca and so what they want to see is AstraZeneca honouring all the contractual arrangements that they have in Europe, as well as internationally, and they asked us to help and assist with that. And they also said that when it comes, though, to PNG, that they would not stand in the way of vaccines going to PNG and, as a matter of fact, they made it very clear that there was no need even for AstraZeneca to register with the regime that they have in place.

Karvelas: So what does it mean for increasing our own supply of vaccines? Are we now basically at a pause on this?

Tehan: So, what it means is that we will continue to provide vaccines to the Australian people, thanks to the forward planning we did with regards to making sure that we could develop our own vaccines here in Australia and so that puts us in a very fortunate situation. And when it comes to the contracts that we've got with AstraZeneca to get those from Europe, we’ll be doing everything we can to have AstraZeneca honour those contracts, but it does mean that we also have to understand that the European Union are also after AstraZeneca vaccines and are also asking them to honour their contracts with them at the moment as well.

Karvelas: When do you expect the 1 million doses for PNG to arrive?

Tehan: Well, I’ve obviously passed the information that I got from the European Union Commission onto the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, and our Foreign Minister Marise Payne. And now- they’re now in discussions with AstraZeneca about when those 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine can be shipped to PNG.

Karvelas: What discussions have you had with Embassy staff about trying to get more Australians stranded overseas home?

Tehan: Look, I spoke with all the embassies that I visited to A: offer my thanks for the work that they've been doing throughout this pandemic. One thing we often forget is that while we were dealing with the pandemic here in Australia, our embassy staff were working throughout the last 12 months, often in very serious circumstances, pursuing Australia's national interest and, especially, when it came to our consular staff who'd been working to get Australians home. They've done a very good job, an excellent job, in facilitating that to occur. So I thank them for the role that they've been playing through the last 12 months, but also said to them that obviously we want to be doing all we can to help vulnerable Australians in particular, to be able to return home—and we should continue and they should continue with their efforts to help facilitate that.

Karvelas: What aspects of the free trade deal with the UK still need to be worked out? I know you’re going to be having these weekly meetings, I think, every Friday, with Liz Truss to try this out over the next month and a half? What's left to nut out?

Tehan: Look, we’re down to the to the last details and what we agreed was that we would go away, we would talk to our respective governments and we would continue to negotiate as we worked through the last few points that we need to settle on. And we also decided that we wouldn't do that publicly. We understand that these are confidential negotiations that we would work through ourselves. And my hopes we will be able to do that successfully over the next four to five weeks and we'll be in a position to sign an agreement and publicise the announcement and the outcomes from that in early June.

Karvelas: Is there any doubt in your mind that we will see further trade retaliation from China in response to the decision to tear up Victoria's belt and road agreement? Are you sort of poised for that decision to be made by China?

Tehan: Well, I hope not, because there's no reason why we should see that. What we've done is put in a country agnostic regime, which obviously, clearly, shows that it's the Commonwealth that rightfully should determine our foreign policy. And that that was a country agnostic regime. So my hope is that we will not see any further retaliation.

Karvelas: You're hopeful, but given what we saw last year, it's inevitable, isn't it?

Tehan: Look, it shouldn't be inevitable, obviously what we want to do is have constructive engagement with China, the complementarity of our two economies is strong. Our exports have helped lift millions of Chinese out of poverty, and Chinese exports have helped us continue to grow our standard of living. So, my hope is that we can have constructive engagement with China and the benefits of the complementarities of our two economies continue to-can continue to flow both to China and to Australia.

Karvelas: Minister, I just want to ask about your own situation. I know lots of people are texting, tweeting, and there's been discussion about your own quarantining or whether there's a double standard. Talk us through your own quarantine. I know you're in Canberra. What does that look like, your quarantine?

Tehan: Well, I’m quarantining consistent with the ACT Government's quarantine laws. I’m in an apartment and I will be doing quarantine for the next two weeks, which means I will be isolated. I can't make any contact with the outside world and I'll be continuing to work. So, I've got obviously a studio set up so I can talk to the media. I've also got equipment set up so I can do National Security Committee of Cabinet meetings. I can do ERC meetings if necessary, I can do Cabinet meetings. And I will have briefings delivered to my door. They'll be stored here until I can get out of where I'm doing my quarantine. So-and, look, I must say, working will help me pass the time very quickly. And the best thing that will be happening when I'm out of here in two weeks’ time is at some stage I'll be able to see my family again, which I'm really looking forward to doing.

Karvelas: Absolutely. I suppose the reason I ask is obviously there's a lot of controversy about Australians trying to get home and then question marks about, you know, ministers travelling. These are the kind of questions many ordinary people ask. So let me put this to you too. WA has now has asked for their numbers of international travellers to be reduced. Gladys Berejiklian, the New South Wales premier, has said some very strong comments today, saying that that she doesn't think that a hotel quarantine breach should mean that you get to cut your international visitor numbers coming back- or not visitors, but Australians returning. Do you agree? Should they have kept their higher numbers like Gladys Berejiklian says?

Tehan: Well, I think the most important thing is that here in Australia, we should understand how fortunate we are, how we've dealt with the pandemic in such an outstanding way, and all of us should come together to agree how we're going to deal with the current situation, which is with what is going on with India, but also in the broader situation of trying to bring as many Australians home as possible. And I don't think we should be doing this through the media publicly. I think National Cabinet is a great avenue for us to be able to sit down and discuss these things maturely. We are in incredibly fortunate situation here in Australia and we should be able to sit down and just work these things out. And that's my hope - that we understand that what's happening out in the- happening in the rest of the globe, is very serious. We're in a very good situation here and we should be able to work these things through. And that's my hope of what we'll see into the future.

Karvelas: Okay, I'll ask again, do you think WA should have cut their numbers of people coming home?

Tehan: Patricia, I'm not going to get into why should they shouldn't they debate [Indistinct]…

Karvelas: [Interrupts] Well it has an impact on how many Australians can come home.

Tehan: Well, look, the more Australians we can bring home the better, but we also have to make sure that we can do that as safely as possible. But I think the best thing is that we understand how fortunate and how lucky we are here in Australia. And what we should be able to do is have these discussions in a very constructive way through National Cabinet. And we should be trying to see how we can bring as many Australians home as we possibly can. And if all states and territories have that as their focus. I'm sure we can work through it in a very constructive way and in a way which really demonstrates to the rest of the world that our success of dealing with the pandemic will continue because we can work through these issues. We can take the expert medical advice and we can continue to be an exemplar for the rest of the world, which I can tell you is what we are at the moment.

Karvelas: Just finally, Minister, do you support Facebook's decision to delete Craig Kelly's page for spreading misinformation?

Tehan: Look, I haven't seen the reasons as to why they’ve taken that decision, so I'd like to get a full understanding of that. Obviously, I've been a strong advocate for free speech in my time as Education Minister, and my time in the parliament, but I'm not quite sure for the rationale as to why they've taken that course of action...

Karvelas: [Interrupts] Because he’s spreading misinformation about COVID. And they want to be a platform, they say, that doesn't allow for the spread of misinformation about COVID and how to deal with COVID.

Tehan: Well, if that's the reason they've taken it and they're prepared to do that for a wide variety of reasons and they've got clear policies in place to stop disinformation spreading on Facebook, then obviously that's their right to undertake that. But hopefully they'll be able to do that consistently across the board on a number of issues.

Karvelas: Thanks so much for your time, Minister. Happy quarantine.

Tehan: Pleasure.

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