Transcript Saturday 19 JUNE 2021

  • Transcript
Subjects: WTO wine dispute, international borders, Victoria’s lockdown
19 June 2021

Dan Tehan: In March this year, the Chinese Government put countervailing duties on Australian wine, ranging between 116 per cent to 220 per cent. That has had a serious impact on the Australian wine industry. Our exports have fallen from $1.1 billion to approximately $20 million. As a result, and following close consultation with the Australian wine industry—and I thank them for the cooperative way they've worked with the government—we've decided to take this wine dispute to the World Trade Organization. As a result, we'll be asking for WTO consultations with the Chinese government on this wine dispute. We stand ready to sit down with the Chinese Government to work out this current dispute with them, but as a result of our bilateral discussions taking place at the officials level not being able to resolve this issue, we're going to the World Trade Organization. I would like to say that Australia strongly believes in the World Trade Organization as a means and a mechanism to try and resolve these disputes. It is a mechanism that's used by all members of the World Trade Organization. This will be the ninth dispute that Australia has taken to the World Trade Organization. It is a mechanism which is available to all countries.

We have always said that we would take a proactive, principled, and patient stand when it comes to our trade policy. In terms of a principled approach, we believe that we need to take every action available to us to try and resolve disputes when we think that harm is being done to sectors or industries in our economy. And in this instance we believe that the actions taken by the Chinese Government have caused serious harm to the Australian wine industry. Can I once again place on the record my thanks to the Australian wine industry for the cooperative way that they have worked with the Australian Government to analyse and assess the case that we have had to take China to the WTO, and for working with us as we put our legal case together and, obviously, made sure that it is a strong legal case.

Can I end by saying the Australian Government continues to want a very constructive engagement when it comes to dealing with China. We would love to be able to sit down and be able to resolve these disputes. But, while we're not in that position to do so, we will use every other mechanism to try and resolve this dispute and other disputes that we have with the Chinese Government.

Question: I know you mentioned some figures at the start there, but can you put, I suppose, a total dollar amount in terms of the impact that China's actions directly have had on the industry?

Tehan:   Well, we were sending $1.1 billion worth of wine to China. The latest estimates we have is that that's probably dropped to $20 million. So, as you can see, there has been an over $1 billion hit to the Australian wine industry as a result of these actions. But we must remember that, due to the quality of Australian wine, we have been able to find other markets as a result of the action that China has taken. And, obviously, with the very good news of the announcement of the agreement in principle of a free-trade agreement with the United Kingdom, that once again will open up even more avenues for Australian wine.

Question: We've seen some of these disputes go on for years. One of the ones between the EU and China went on for almost four years after appeals. So, how quickly would you like to see an outcome and how long will winemakers have to wait?

Tehan:   So, this process is a long process. It can take anywhere up to between two years and four years for WTO disputes to be ultimately resolved. So, what the Australian government would like is to be able to sit down and resolve this dispute directly with China. But if we can't we're prepared to go through the process, even though it will take the length of time to be able to resolve this.

Question: The government has said previously that the WTO isn't really working when it comes to resolving disputes. You know, you're now saying that you have full confidence in them. So how confident are you that Australia can win this battle with China?

Tehan:   Well, one of the issues with the WTO dispute settlement mechanism has been around the appellate body. Now, Australia and China and some other countries have put interim measures in place to deal with the fact that the appellate body isn't functioning at the moment, so we're confident that this process can resolve this dispute, but it will take a period of time, anywhere between two to four years.

Question: Minister, can I ask you a question on vaccinations? We've got some polling today that says a third of voters actually want to reduce the number of people coming into Australia to take that pressure off hotel quarantine. At the same time, I've got the Prime Minister suggesting there might be a traffic light system for students and businesspeople to come into the country. How are you going to convince Australians that that's a good idea, and that perhaps at some point, we have to accept a certain level of risk and that there will be COVID in the community?

Tehan:   Well, the Prime Minister has made very clear that we're in no rush to open the borders but that we are looking at ways that, when it is safe to do so, we would be able to bring people back to this country. One of the things that has been very successful is the bubble that Australia has with New Zealand. That has shown that, where it is safe to do so, we can begin to open up to other countries. Building on that bubble, down the track, has the potential to include countries like Singapore. But we will only do that when the medical experts tell us it is safe to do so. So, the Australian people can be reassured that when it is time for us to further open the Australian borders, we will do so in a way where their safety is absolutely paramount.

Question: This traffic light system that's been mentioned for foreign students, how exactly would that play out? And when could we see- do you have an idea of when that could even start?

Tehan: Well, we've been in discussions with the Singaporean Government for some time now at the officials level as to how we could potentially create a bubble between Australia and Singapore. The Prime Minister had discussions with the Singaporean Prime Minister about this when he was in Singapore last week. I'll be travelling to Singapore in about three or four weeks' time when we will further those discussions. But it's been made very clear that we will only create a bubble with Singapore when it is safe for us to do so, and in the meantime we're looking at what would be the processes that would enable that to be as safe as possible.

Question: So, is there some sort of benchmark of when we know it's going to be safe? Is that looking at having no cases in Australia, no transmission? What would you like to see as that benchmark?

Tehan: Well, ultimately, that will be based on what the medical experts advise the government. The way that we have dealt with this pandemic so successfully has been taking the advice of the medical experts. So, we'll look at ways that we can harmonise systems, but ultimately, those decisions will be taken when the medical experts say it's safe to do so.

Question: Singapore has a really high rate, compared to us, of vaccinations. I think 25 per cent of people have had both vaccinations there. They've still gone into lockdowns. At what level would we need to get to in order to prevent those sort of heavy-handed tactics here? And will that impact when we can open?

Tehan:   Well, ultimately, at the moment, it's very difficult to tell, especially with new strains, new variants, as to what level of vaccinations would be required. Our medical experts continue to monitor this. They're monitoring very closely, for instance, what's happening in the United Kingdom, where there is very high levels of vaccination at the moment, but still we're seeing cases there at quite high levels. So, all this is very much being watched and monitored at the moment by our medical experts and we'll continue to do so. We've had success in opening up our bubble with New Zealand. Ultimately, down the track, we'd like to build on that, but we'll only do so when we're advised that it's safe to do so. And that will largely depend on how these various variants play out and the monitoring of those circumstances.

Question: Just some questions, too, on the latest lockdown in Vic, if that's all right. How unfair has this lockdown been, particularly on regional Victorians?

Tehan: Regional Victorians have taken an inordinate load of trying to make sure that the whole of Victoria has been kept safe. In many instances there are communities right out in regional Victoria who haven't had a case of the coronavirus for nearly a year, so they have carried a heavy burden. But they have always been prepared to do that to keep all Victorians safe, and I think what we now have to do is recognise that and, where we can, avoid lockdowns in regional, rural Victoria, we should be looking to do so. The more that we can look to make sure that we target zones where the virus outbreaks are occurring and enable the rest of the state to continue on is the best way to look after the livelihoods, but also the safety, of all Victorians.

Question: We saw a mass exodus out of Melbourne last night. I'm not sure if you saw some of the pictures from the highway, but a lot of people hightailing it out of here. Does that highlight the emotional toll that this latest lockdown has taken on Victorians?

Tehan: There's no question that this latest lockdown has had a large impact on Victorians and especially on Melbournians. Melbournians have been through more lockdowns than any other part of the country and I think this latest one, in particular, did take a heavy toll. So my hope is that we've seen the worst of it now, as far as Melbourne is concerned, that we'll be able to redouble our efforts to make sure that we've got the systems in place that will prevent future lockdowns, especially severe lockdowns.

Question: And I think you mentioned this, the question is what does the government need to do next time that there is an outbreak? So, you don't want to see another blanket lockdown? A more targeted approach?

Tehan: I think a much more targeted approach would be the best way to go if we can identify the hotspots and then deal with those hotspots in a very targeted way, which doesn't mean that the whole of the state carries the burden, would be a much better approach to take in. It's one which the New South Wales Government has been able to take successfully, and, I think, Victoria needs to look to New South Wales and learn from New South Wales because they've been able to deal with outbreaks of the virus successfully without having to lock down their whole state. Thanks very much, everyone.

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