Interview with Peter Stefanovic, Sky News Live
Peter Stefanovic: The Government's powerful National Security Committee has signed off on a plan to begin repatriating Australians stranded in India. Joining me live now is the Minister for Tourism and Trade, Dan Tehan. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for joining us this morning.
Before we talk about China, I just want to ask you about this news this morning—and I think it's going to be announced by the Prime Minister in about half an hour's time or so. But those repatriation flights to resume next week, that's despite record numbers in India, another 12,000 positive cases. Are you concerned about leakage from quarantine facilities? Because it seems inevitable that positive infection rates in quarantine is going to exceed to [indistinct].
Dan Tehan: Peter, the reason that decision was taken was because we had 54 cases in Howard Springs. Now, that number has about halved and we're advised it’ll be down to zero by the 15th of May. Now, based on medical advice, we will resume those flights, if that's what the medical advice says we are able to do, but it will be done with the advice as to how we can ensure that those returning Australians are COVID-free.
So, there'll be testing put in place. We want to do this carefully and cautiously to make sure that the Howard Springs facility can deal with the returnees. And we don't see numbers of cases increased to the extent that we did, where there were 54 cases in Howard Springs because our medical facilities here in Australia have to be able to deal with the returnees if they have COVID.
Stefanovic: It stands to reason, though, doesn't it, that those positive numbers will jack up pretty quickly as soon as you resume those flights?
Tehan: We'll take the medical advice on this in terms of the testing regimes that we have to put in place before people get on flights. And you can put in place procedures where two tests have to be undertaken before you hop on a flight so that we can make sure we're doing everything we can to limit the amount of COVID cases who are returning on those flights.
Stefanovic: Will you be- would you be leaning on states to increase their travel caps?
Tehan: That'll be part of the discussions that the Prime Minister will be having with state and territory leaders at National Cabinet. So, they're the discussions that are had at National Cabinet. What we've been focused on is the two-week temporary ban that was put in place and how we can resume that, but resume it in a way which is safe and we know will protect Australians and protect the health circumstances against what we've seen across the globe with this third wave of the pandemic.
Stefanovic: So, just for now, it will be one flight a week?
Tehan: Those details will be announced by the Prime Minister today. As I've said, all this will be based on the expert medical advice. And, you know, at the moment, the planning is being put in place as to what those flights should look like, how frequent they will be, but it'll all be dependent on that expert medical advice. That's how we've got ourselves through this pandemic so successfully, by listening and taking on board that expert medical advice—and that's what we'll continue to do.
Stefanovic: You must be worried about those numbers, though, because they are higher now than what they were when the ban was originally put in place.
Tehan: Look, we'll take a very cautious approach, there's no question about that. And based on that expert medical advice, if they say the flights can resume, then the flights will resume, but we’ll do so in a way that we know is keeping Australians safe.
And that's why all the planning is taking place at the moment. That's why we're looking at what needs to be done with regards to testing of people before they get on the flights and how you can arrange to have two tests undertaken before people get on the flight. So, all those things are under active consideration, being worked through at the moment.
Stefanovic: And who do you decide gets priority?
Tehan: Well, there are roughly 900 vulnerable Australians in India at the moment. The High Commissioner and our Consul Generals across India are obviously in contact with those vulnerable Australians and they'll work through the situations and they'll be able to advise as to who needs to get on the flight.
So, this has been done, the planning has already been undertaken, and we’ll continue to work with those vulnerable Australians to see how we can repatriate them, if the medical advice says that flights should resume on 15 May.
Stefanovic: Okay. Just onto China, Minister, Beijing says all economic talks are off indefinitely. What does that even matter when there's no talks happening anyway?
Tehan: We hadn't been able to have the dialogue since 2017, and we've made clear that we want to be able to sit down and have a ministerial dialogue and my hope is that that's what we'll be able to achieve this over the months ahead.
So, this is obviously a disappointing decision, but one where we will continue to say to China the best way that we can deal with our differences in the current circumstance is to be able to sit down and talk. And that's our hope and that's what we would like to see.
Stefanovic: Okay. They're calling us names again, Minister. They're now accusing Australia of ideological discrimination and of having a Cold War mentality. Is this because they have no more exports to sanction?
Tehan: Look, what we want to do is have a dialogue. That's the best thing you can do in this situation ...
Stefanovic: [Talks over] But there is no dialogue.
Tehan: … when there’s differences between countries, is sit down and work through it. And that's our hope. And we'll continue to work with China at the official’s level. There is still significant trade which is taking place between our two countries that benefits China, that benefits Australia. We want to make sure that the commercial relationship is a strong one, that has lifted millions out of poverty in China; it’s helped us maintain our standard of living. And our hope is that the economic relationship will be able to continue.
Stefanovic: Do you fear a need, or do you feel that there's a need to tread carefully around the potential severing of the Port of Darwin lease?
Tehan: Look, everything that the Government has done has been done according to our national interest, according to our sovereignty, in a very country agnostic way. We'll take the advice on the Port of Darwin, and we'll obviously consider that advice, and we'll take a decision which is in our national interest. That's the way that we've done things and that's the way we'll continue to do things.
Stefanovic: Okay. And just finally, Minister, do you share the Finance Minister's claim that international travel won't resume in any significant way until deep into next year?
Tehan: This is one of these crystal ball things that it's very hard to determine. My hope is, especially with my tourism hat on, that we've been able to set up a tourism bubble with New Zealand and that, hopefully, we will be able to extend some bubbles down the track. But it's going to very much depend on how we're able to deal with the global pandemic. We've seen third waves now in India and on the subcontinent that obviously are very challenging. So, we'll have to watch and monitor the situation. It’s very hard to tell. And we've got to make our best guess when it comes to Treasury analysis for the budget. And I think that we've taken a very cautious but sensible approach in what we've determined, when it's most likely that international travel will resume.
Stefanovic: Okay. And what is that best guess at the moment? The second half of next year?
Tehan: The best guess would be in the middle to the second half of next year but as we've seen throughout this pandemic, things can change. So, the hope would be that we might be able to see a few more bubbles set up and would be able to see more travel being undertaken. But we're in a pandemic so, this is a best guess, Peter, at this stage.
Stefanovic: Yeah, I mean, that's going to be a huge blow to confidence, if that's the case, for tourism and airlines as well.
Tehan: Look, these are challenging times for our tourism and aviation sector. There's no question about that. But one of the really great things has been the strength in domestic tourism and how that is picked up over the past few months—and it's an absolute credit to our tourism industry and to our aviation sector. And we just launched a new round of Tourism Australia ads yesterday, asking Australians to not only holiday here, but holiday here longer and go further because we want Australians to really start exploring this wonderful nation, and the wonderful attractions that we've got. And the best thing you can do is have a long holiday and travel a long way to have that holiday. It's good for you, good for your mental health, it's good for your relationships, and it's good for the 600,000 jobs that are employed in the tourism sector. So that's our key focus at the moment while we can't travel internationally is to make sure that all Australians have the benefit of a holiday this year and help our 600,000 people who are employed in the tourism industry.
Stefanovic: Okay. Minister Dan Tehan, always appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us. We'll talk to you soon.
Tehan: Thanks, Peter.