Transcript—ABC Drive

Interview

DCI010/2017

13 January 2017

Subjects: Entitlements, MH370.

Warrick Long: We are joined by Darren Chester, who is the Minister for Transport in the Government and also a National Party Member. Welcome to Drive.

Darren Chester: And good afternoon to you Warwick.

Warrick Long: What do you make of the Prime Minister's announcement today, Sussan Ley has resigned?

Darren Chester: Well two things Warwick, first of all I'd have to say I am disappointed that a work colleague who has done her best to represent her electorate and perform well in the Health Portfolio has resigned. I feel sad for Sussan because I regard her as a good member of Parliament who has worked very hard, but I understands that in this job you are held to the very highest of standards and if you make mistakes whether it be inadvertently or deliberately, if you put yourself in a position where you have made errors of judgement you pay a very heavy price and in this case Sussan has paid a very heavy public price and she has been subject to some pretty harsh commentary as well. But at the end of the day I think she had to make that decision and it is the right decision for her to make and I accept that, but in terms of the Prime Minister's announcements regarding the need for an independent parliamentary expenses authority and for greater scrutiny and transparency, I think they are good moves, they are welcome moves. I think the public desperately wants to have more confidence and see more clarity and transparency in the system and I think these will be welcome moves.

Warrick Long: Do you worry about your own travel expenses; you are a Minister in the Government. When you see a colleague in a similar position lose her job?

Darren Chester: Absolutely Warrick, I have two of my staff members who check my travel claims before I sign them and I can stand here and say to you I'm very confident we have done the right thing and haven't broken any rules. But It is all very well for me to say I have got confidence, the public needs to have that confidence as well. I think that is where we run the risk in recent times with the coverage in the media and the views being expressed by a lot of people that their annoyance with the current system, that they want to see more clarity, they want to see more transparency and they want to have confidence in the system that workplace related expenses are being properly claimed and we need to make sure that happens. I think the Prime Minister's announcement today will be a very welcome step in that direction.

Warrick Long: According to Sussan Ley's resignation she hadn't broken the rules either?

Darren Chester: Well this is the troubling part Warrick, as I indicated to you, I have got two of my staff check my claims before I even make them, and I can put my hand on my heart and say I believe we haven't broken any rules or made any mistakes but sometimes mistakes may have been made, now whether they were inadvertent mistakes or errors of judgement are there for others to decide. I think the move the Prime Minister has made to provide greater transparency and greater clarity will be very welcome. It will certainly be welcomed by MPs I believe, it will be welcomed by their staff and it will be welcomed by bureaucrats who right now have to enforce the current system which has a number of grey areas which are difficult to negotiate and potentially easy to get wrong and when it goes wrong you see some very public fallout as we have seen in recent days and I think the announcement by the prime minister is a very welcome step.

Warrick Long: And you have been named in articles this week about picking up some keys when you're on a work trip. What is it like waking up and seeing your name in this controversy and an article written about you…

Darren Chester: Well, I was quite…

Warrick Long: Was that fair?

Darren Chester: I'd suggest I was quite unfairly named in that regard in the sense that I was in Melbourne on work related activities and I ran an errand to pick up some keys for a unit I'd bought two months earlier. Now, I'm not sure that that really should have been linked to a whole range of other conversations that were going on that day but the media has its job to play and that is to report the news and I'm not convinced that my picking up the keys to a unit was necessarily news but that's a bitter pill for me to swallow, I'm big enough and ugly enough to manage that. I'll get on with my job and pick myself up and do my job to the best of my ability.

Warrick Long: Even though you think it was unfair, what's it like when suddenly you're launched into a wider Government scandal?

Darren Chester: Well politicians are humans too and I'd have to say some of the comments that have been made about Sussan Ley on social media in particular have been quite appalling. I mean, Sussan is a Member of Parliament who has worked hard and been elected by the people of Farrer on several occasions. And to see some of the language and some of the comments directed at her, very personal and unnecessary comments. I think, you know we have got a challenge in Australia, we need to make sure we can have these robust and rigorous debates about important issues of public policy without descending into name calling or the type of language we have seen in recent days. I hope we can get ourselves over this and build more confidence in the system. Because, I actually, I believe that being a Member of Parliament, whether you are Labor, Greens, Independent or Nationals is a very esteemed role and one that you take on with all seriousness and I think we need to try and rebuild that public trust in the roles we do. And I think the Prime Minister's announcement in the last hour or so are part of that process of rebuilding that confidence and trust in the public and then they can rely on their members of parliament who've been sent to do a job in Canberra, are doing that job to the best of their ability.

Warrick Long: Here's the Prime Minister today:

The Government believes that the work expenses of Parliamentarians including Ministers, should be administered and overseen by an independent agency. It will monitor and adjudicate all claims by MPs, Senators and Ministers, ensuring that taxpayers funds are spent appropriately and in compliance with the rules.

It has certainly been a damaging week for the government, particularly so close in the memory of those in the community of the ‘choppergate’ scandal with Bronwyn Bishop. Another former Coalition Government Minister, do you think this is enough to rebuild some of the faith that has been lost in your government?

Darren Chester: I'd go a step further Warrick. I'd say it's been a damaging week for all Members of Parliament, whether it be at state or federal level. We have a job to do where we need to rebuild public trust and confidence in the integrity of the system. I think Australia is a better nation when politicians are more highly regarded and I think there is a process we have to go through; we have to raise ourselves to the standards the Australian people expect from us. I think the independent authority announcemed by the Prime Minister is a very welcome step in the right direction and I just hope the Australian people can come with us on that journey that it won't be seen as a bit of window dressing, it will be seen as a genuine attempt of reform so that we can rebuild that confidence and trust which I think is important for this great democracy that we have.

Warrick Long: A final question on this, Sussan Ley has gone, Arthur Sinodinos is in her stead in the interim. The Government does have a former Health Minister sitting on the backbench, Tony Abbott. Should he be considered for this job?

Darren Chester: Nice try Warwick, it is not my job to tell Prime Minister who should come into Cabinet. I am there to serve as the Member for Gippsland and the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. If I get to continue in that role I will be very happy but it is up to the Prime Minister to pick his team.

Warrick Long: Would you have a preference though?

Darren Chester: No, it is up to the Prime Minister to pick his team. I won't be telling the Prime Minister how to pick his Cabinet.

Warrick Long: Let's move on to the issue at hand which we had had a long standing commitment to talk to you about—it is one of the great mysteries in the modern era is what happened to flight MH370, which disappeared in March 2014 without a trace and we have really been searching for it ever since, but that search is about to cease. Can you tell us why that search is about to wrap up?

Darren Chester: By way of background Warwick you are right the aircraft went missing almost three years ago now and the undertaking by the Chinese, Malaysian, and Australian governments as part of a tripartite agreement was to search the 120,000 square kilometres highest probability area which the research indicated was the most likely place that we would find MH370 and then on the completion of that search area to suspend the search unless we had credible new information leading to a specific location of the aircraft. Now we are getting very close to the completion of that search area and tragically we need to prepare ourselves for the sad reality that despite this enormous search effort and despite bringing together experts from Australia and around the world to analyse the data we may not locate MH370 at this stage or in the foreseeable future and that is a very sad and a very tragic fact.

Warrick Long: So when will the search end?

Darren Chester: There is one vessel searching now in an area which is located about 2,600 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. The vessel is out there on station at the moment—the Fugro Equator it is called—and we expect it will complete its search efforts in the next couple of weeks depending on weather conditions. It is worth reminding people the search area is located in a very inhospitable part of the world. It is a long way off the West Australian coast, there have been occasions during this search effort where sea states have reached 20 metres high. They are searching water which is up to six kilometres deep. So in many ways it has been an extraordinary search which has really tested the edge of scientific knowledge and technical capacity, but also testing human endurance so that is going on at the moment as we speak. But sadly and tragically MH370 may remain as one of aviation's greatest mysteries, as you indicated.

Warrick Long: And just on that if you stop the search do you worry about fuelling conspiracy theories really forever as people continually speculate on what actually happened to the flight. There has been talk of Russian intervention, US intervention, it is not hard to find a conspiracy about MH370 as soon as you get on a keyboard. Do you worry about that?

Darren Chester: My role as the Minister is not to second guess the experts. Our responsibility through the ATSB has managed the underwater search efforts and I understand there are a lot of theories but the absence of finding the aircraft you are going to have various amounts of speculation put forward. But we owe it to the families—there were 239 passengers and crew and of which seven of those people on board called Australia home. We owe it to the families to do the best we can and we are doing that. It is a very difficult question though when you talk about do you extend the search area; we have a responsibility to continue to search the area we specified through the tripartite agreement—that was the meeting in July in Malaysia that I attended. In the absence of any credible new information leading to the specific location of the aircraft we simply don't have that information with us today so I guess you are right in saying that there will be theories and speculation which will abound but it is not up to me as the Minister to second guess the experts. I can only go with the information that was provided through the ATSB and through some of the world's leading aviation experts.

Warrick Long: Does it feel like a failure to not succeed here?

Darren Chester: Of course it does Warrick, for the families involved you want to find the aircraft. We hate mysteries as humans, we think we can solve every problem and we haven't solved this one at this stage so it does feel frustrating. I wouldn't call it a failure, there has been an extraordinary amount of research effort and learning that has gone on through the process. The underwater search actually has uncovered two ship wrecks from the early 1900s so the equipment certainly worked in that regard so it has been an extraordinary effort by everyone involved. I can simply show my respect and say thank you to them for their efforts. But we do have to prepare ourselves for the fact that we may not find MH 370 now or in the foreseeable future. There is still some work going on in terms of if more debris is located, the modelling of the ocean current to try and detect where it came from, still analysis of satellite imaginary and those sorts of things are continuing but in terms of the underwater search effort, the intention is once the 120 000 square kilometre area is completed there will be a suspension at that time.

Warrick Long: Do you think private companies will try and fill the role that you will inevitably leave behind in the next few weeks or so and try and find it themselves?

Darren Chester: It is not up for me to speculate on what private companies might want to do. I have got an important role on this that I don't want to be raising false hope for those families and friends of the people on board. So our intention through the discussions with Malaysia and China was that once we have finished the highest probability search area we would suspend the search at that time. Now, that is still our intention, it is not a decision for me to make in isolation or for Australia to make in isolation about any future search effort. It would be something that we would talk about as the responsible Ministers from the three affected countries. But our intention as it stands, is unless there is credible new information which leads us to that specific location it would be inappropriate not to suspend the search.

Warrick Long: Minister, we thank you for your time today.

Darren Chester: I appreciate your time, thank you.