Dan Tehan
Trade Minister Dan Tehan (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Dan Tehan has been sent on a mission to save Australia. Just months after being appointed trade minister, Tehan is headed to Europe this week, where he’ll lobby officials in the UK, the EU and the World Trade Organisation to let us have more doses of vaccine, please.

The stakes are pretty high. In the last week, the Morrison government has effectively binned its vaccination targets, conceding that some Australians might not get their first dose by the end of the year. And while the rollout has been beset by significant teething problems of the government’s own doing, and the AstraZeneca blood clot issue, a major problem has also been anxious vaccine nationalism — the EU blocked 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine in March, and the threat of export restrictions continue to have a chilling effect on shipments coming in.

That’s where Tehan will supposedly step in. He says he’ll be doing a bit of “vaccine diplomacy,asking the WTO’s director general “how we can move away from countries using vaccine nationalism?”.

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He’s got his work cut out; with vaccine rollouts stalling across the EU, bureaucrats are diligently plotting ways to keep doses in Europe. He’s set to be meeting ministers in Germany and France, countries where cases are rising and the vaccine rollout has, like Australia’s, been sluggish.

Making the case to beleaguered European politicians and officials to give Australia more doses might be a tough one. Is Tehan up to it? Well, he’s only been trade minister since December. Before that, he had the education portfolio, where his signature achievement was making arts degrees more expensive and occasionally grumbling about campus culture wars.

Before entering politics, however, Tehan spent six years with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which included a stint posted in Mexico City and trips to Cuba. With any luck, he still remembers a few of the quiet diplomacy skills needed to soften up the Europeans.

Finger’s crossed, Tehan’s trip will be a fruitful one. But given the state of our vaccine rollout, the trip looks like another act of desperate narrative control. This morning, a bunch of media outlets were running headlines about Morrison’s National Cabinet being on “war footing” to fix the vaccine rollout.

Taken together, that briefing (straight from the Prime Minister’s Office, no doubt) coupled with the swift announcement of Tehan’s trip look a lot like the kind of PR blitz that has replaced meaningful action on the vaccine rollout.

Dan Tehan is no superhero, and he’s unlikely to change EU export restrictions single-handedly. But it matters little if he fails. Because in announcing his trip, the Morrison government has moved the vaccine rollout narrative closer to where they want it to be.