Interview with Jim Wilson 2GB Drive

  • Transcript (E&OE)
Subjects: COVID-19 vaccine roll out; new Biden Administration; Australia-China trade relationship; the evolving situation in Myanmar; repatriation flights from the UK
01 February 2021

Jim Wilson: Scott Morrison has today committed $1.9 billion to the rollout of the COVID vaccine, saying it's the key to restoring our economy. With the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine set to arrive at the end of this month, the money will go toward setting up vaccination facilities at hospitals, surgeries, and pharmacies. But it comes as the European Union has threatened to block shipments of the vaccine to some countries, including Australia.

On the line is Foreign Minister Marise Payne. Minister, welcome back to Drive for the very first time in 2021.

Marise Payne: Happy New Year, Jim. And Happy New Year to all of your listeners.

Jim Wilson: Thanks for your time as always. The first COVID vaccine is set to be rolled out in a few weeks, but it could be delayed, with the European Union trying to control where the vaccines are allowed to be sent to. Have you or Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, spoken to the World Health Organization about your concerns?

Marise Payne: Well, we have a very clear COVID-19 vaccine and treatment strategy, which sets out how vaccines will be rolled out to the Australian people. And as you said in your opening remarks, the Prime Minister has reinforced that and made further announcements in relation to that today. But we've also been very clear, through the WHO in particular, including its most recent executive board meeting just on 18 January, that vaccines are a global good, and that we have absolutely reinforced that in our own region, including our commitments to the Pacific and to Southeast Asia to ensure vaccine availability and support in delivery of that there. So we don't think they should be subjected to restrictive trade measures and we have been making representations to the European Union in relation to that. We expect that our Australian supplies will be delivered according to our contracted arrangements.

Jim Wilson: Okay. So you're confident, the Government's confident that the rollout will proceed, the Pfizer vaccine, at the end of February?

Marise Payne: Yes, we have absolute confidence in that program. It is very, very complex, as you saw, or many of your listeners will have seen in the Prime Minister's announcements today, establishing the vaccine immunisation points around Australia, thousands of those. And the vaccine purchase process has been very, very detailed, both through the Department of Health, the Health Minister, as you mentioned, and senior officials who are deeply involved in ensuring that the vaccines we are using here are safe, have the efficacy that we need, and basically the sorts of approvals are met that the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia requires.

Jim Wilson: Okay, let's turn our attention to the United States. Will Australia and the US continue their relationship with the Biden Government or will our friendship with the Trump administration hurt us long term?

Marise Payne: I have no doubt that our friendship and our relationship with the United States is founded on the most fundamental values and principles that we share and that it will, in fact, not just continue, but grow. One of the reasons that I think it will grow is because it has never been more important for us, both to be working closely together on strategic challenges upholding the rules-based order, which we both support and advocate and implement, combating COVID-19 itself, and particularly looking at a strong economic recovery in the Indo-Pacific, which has been so knocked around by the impact of COVID-19. All of these things, I think, point to a year of strong practical engagement. We had an excellent Australia-US ministerial meeting in Washington in July of last year, which both the Defence Minister and I attended. We have a solid work program underneath that. That will continue, and as I said, grow. I spoke to the new Secretary of State and Antony Blinken, whom I've known since I was Defence Minister, just last week, to speak about those priorities that we have between us. And importantly, to reinforce the value of the alliance and the strengths that our two nations have when we work together.

Jim Wilson: Having spoken to Antony Blinken, the new Secretary of State, do you think we can rely on the US to stand firm with us on China?

Marise Payne: I am absolutely confident that the United States will be a strong partner for Australia across a range of those strategic challenges. And we have been clear where we are working together as a priority that we place on, as I said, the global rules based order and on addressing those issues, which include some of the actions which have been taken against Australia recently and some of the trade actions in particular.

Jim Wilson: Okay. Well, the US economy has been hit hard by COVID. Are there any concerns within Canberra that Joe Biden could push US products into China to replace Aussie products that have been caught up in our trade - goods like wine, red meat, lobsters?

Marise Payne: Well, we've always had robust trading relationships around the world, between Australia, the United States and so many of our other counterparts around the world. But we have a strong Australia-US FTA. We, of course, have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership ourself with China. And although, as the Prime Minister has said today, the environment has changed since the establishment of that Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. I would hope that all of Australia's partners, including the United States, continue to work constructively with us and engage with us on some of these challenges.

Jim Wilson: Have you got concerns about New Zealand's relationship with Beijing?

Marise Payne: Well, New Zealand's relationship with Beijing is, of course, a matter for it. But New Zealand, importantly, is our closest bilateral partner. I note in signing an FTA upgrade with China last week, it's one which builds on a Free Trade Agreement they've had since 2008. And I know it had been under negotiation for many months. But I want to reinforce as well the importance of the Australia-China relationship and what an important partner they are for us. And we obviously work closely with Australian exporters and industry to focus on that. But our commitment is to a bilateral relationship with China that supports the interests of both countries. I think the Prime Minister put it very well today.

Jim Wilson: So, is one of your priorities in 2021, obviously, is to repair relationships with China? What's your next move on that front?

Marise Payne: Well, I think as the Prime Minister said today in his remarks, we remain – and I've just reinforced that – we remain committed to engaging with China. It's not surprising that there are differences between our two nations given our different economic and political system. But we are very much prepared to engage, to speak with each other. And of course, that means at both ministerial and leader level. And if I can quote from the Prime Minister's speech, he said that that would be a dialogue focused not on concessions but on areas of mutual benefit, committed to finding a way for our nations and peoples to beneficially engage in the future. We are very open to that process.

Jim Wilson: Just going back to New Zealand. Their Trade Minister suggested we should be showing more respect to China. Damien O'Connor says we could show a little more diplomacy from time to time. Well, I'd suggest, Minister, we've been very diplomatic in our dealings with China and he should be saying it the other way around; China should show us some respect.

Marise Payne: Well, I understand Minister Tehan, my new Trade Minister colleague, and the New Zealand Trade Minister had a conversation about that last week, and I think they have an upcoming meeting probably this week as well. Australia is consistent and considered and very clear in all of our dealings with our bilateral partners, China included, about our own priorities, what our national interests are, and of course what our values are in pursuing our national interests. I think that we have been very considered and very consistent in talking about those and in raising those in appropriate fora. From time to time, there will be differences. Australia has raised concerns on a number of those issues. But most importantly, we seek, as the Prime Minister said, to have a dialogue which focuses on mutual benefit, and certainly that is our focus along with Minister Tehan and myself in the Foreign Affairs and Trade area.

Jim Wilson: A couple of more questions. Myanmar this afternoon, how closely are you watching these deeply troubling reports coming out of there, with the military once again trying to seize control?

Marise Payne: We are watching very, very closely. They are deeply concerning reports. And I am someone who, as Foreign Minister, very early in my role, visited Myanmar in December 2018, met personally with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and with other senior officials. We are very concerned to hear the reports that have been made today. We have issued a statement this afternoon, particularly in relation to our call for the military in Myanmar to respect the rule of law, to resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms, and particularly to immediately release all civilian leaders and others who have been unlawfully detained. We are strongly supportive of the peaceful reconvening of the National Assembly following the elections in November of last year. And as a country which is a full- a strong member of ASEAN, an important member of ASEAN, a country in our region, these are deeply concerning events.

Jim Wilson: Okay. Before I let you go, later in the show, I'll be speaking to one Aussie who's stranded overseas in the UK. He's trying to come home, but he keeps running into roadblocks each time. Will the government facilitate more repatriation flights?

Marise Payne: Well, we announced just in the last week an additional 20 facilitated commercial flights from a range of countries. That includes the UK, also India and from Europe. The first flight of that 20, in fact, departed London on Saturday in the last weekend and the second departs London tonight. So, this is a very significant piece of work that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, particularly consular officials, are engaged in. We have seen over 454,000 Australians return to the country since we recommended that people reconsider the need to travel. And that includes 13,000 people on 100 government facilitated flights. But I absolutely recognise that there are many Australians who are still very, very focussed on the process of returning, as they would be in circumstances where it is a very difficult situation in many countries that they are in. I do recognise that. I know it is difficult for them, and that is why we are supporting as many Australians as we can to return within the processes that we have here around quarantine, the arrangements that states and territories have in place in terms of numbers that they are able to manage. But also, returning Australians through the Howard Springs facility in Darwin is a very important part of that.

Jim Wilson: I suppose what I'm saying is in addition to the 20 repatriation flights that were announced a week ago, additional flights, considering there are still 39,000 Australians stranded abroad. 4800 of those are vulnerable.

Marise Payne: Well, we will work through the 20 flights that we have planned from those locations and then continue to work with commercial airlines as well. And we will review the situation as those flights progress. On the 15th of February, the state and territory leaders have agreed to look at the capped numbers again, which, of course, were decreased in the context of issues recently. When they look at those again, then we will be able to determine how many more commercial flights and the numbers on those commercial flights - it will be possible to be coming to Australia and also our own commercial facilitated flights. But it's very logistically complex. We require approvals through foreign governments, of course, federal and state governments here. But we have been progressing these logistics, as I said, with over 100 flights so far, 13,000 Australians, we will continue to focus on those who need that support.

Jim Wilson: Minister, as always, appreciate your time. I'm looking forward to having regular chats with you in 2021.

Marise Payne: Thank you, Jim. So am I. And very much looking forward to a very positive 2021.

Jim Wilson: We hope so. Thanks very much for your time.

Marise Payne: Thank you.

Jim Wilson: That's Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

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