Transcript—ABC AM

Interview

DCI014/2017

18 January 2017

Subjects: Underwater search for MH370 suspended.

Kim Landers: Well the Transport Minister is Darren Chester and he joins me from Melbourne. Minister, good morning.

Darren Chester: Good morning, Kim.

Kim Landers: What do you say to the families who are bitterly disappointed at this decision and are calling it irresponsible?

Darren Chester: Well, I had the opportunity yesterday to speak to some of the family representatives here in Australia, and I understand their disappointment and frustration because I share that disappointment with them. I obviously can't possibly understand their grief; they have been waiting for answers now for almost three years, and it is the unanswered questions for them which is the most difficult part for them to deal with. But I have got to say, the conversations I had with them yesterday, they were very understanding of the fact that the Australian Government has done a great deal in terms of leading the underwater search effort in partnership with the Malaysian Government and the People's Republic of China. They understood the decision and they knew that it was coming in terms of—we'd had that meeting in July last year where the three governments had resolved that at the completion of the 120,000 square kilometres, the search would be suspended at that time.

Kim Landers: Now Tony Abbott was Prime Minister when MH370 disappeared; he has tweeted, and I quote, disappointed that the search for MH370 has been called off, especially if some experts think there are better places to look.

Darren Chester: Well I don't think is an issue you can cover in 140 characters on Twitter, and the former Prime Minister is welcome to his opinion. I have relied on the experts from the ATSB and from around the world in terms of guiding my involvement in the decision-making process.

Kim Landers: But some of those experts just last month, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, with the help of the CSIRO said that the search area was unlikely to contain the missing plane, but they also said that with the drift modelling and updated flight path modelling, the experts had concluded that an area north has the highest probability of containing the wreckage. So why not adjust the search area?

Darren Chester: Well we need to be clear, Kim, on the information that has been provided to us. The experts from the ATSB and the international experts who have done an extraordinary job over these last couple of years in terms of guiding the search effort with a small amount of data, these are the same experts who have now indicated that if you were to extend the search, if you had more resources available, this is the next most likely place to start searching. No one is coming to me saying we know MH370 is in that 25,000 square kilometres, it…

Kim Landers: But that's been the problem all along, hasn't it, that no one knows where it is, so if the experts—if you are taking expert advice and the experts are now saying we think this is the best situation, why not follow that advice?

Darren Chester: Well I'd suggest, Kim, this is one of those situations where there is not going to be a perfect answer, and in fact probably—I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I continue the search effort and came to you today and said I have reached agreement with Malaysia and China to find another 20, 30, 40 or 50 million dollars, you'd be saying to me well, why are you spending taxpayers' money in this way? But by coming to you and saying that we agreed in July last year that in the absence of any credible new evidence leading to the specific location of the aircraft, we intend to suspend the search, you are now asking well why won't you extend it to a new area. I don't think there's a perfect answer.

Kim Landers: So what makes up credible new information? What is the threshold for that? What are you after?

Darren Chester: I think that is the critical question, Kim, and I don't want to sound dismissive at all when I say this to you, we will know that when we see it. When the experts will come to us with evidence which leads us to a more specific location than they have been able to provide at this stage, then that would be a question for the Malaysian, Chinese and Australian governments to then decide whether we go back out with the underwater search efforts. So what is happening now is while the underwater search effort is suspended, there is still work going on with the ATSB in terms of the debris drift modelling, so the debris that has been found, some analysis of that. There is still analysis of the satellite imagery available from that time, and we are not in a position to tell you whether there'll be a technological breakthrough in the future where we could be able to search in a different way.

You have got to understand that during this search effort we are talking about an area of the ocean which is 2,500 kilometres off the coast of West Australia. We are searching depths of water in excess of four and five kilometres deep, sometimes in sea states of waves of 15 to 20 metres. The fact that during that time they have been able to locate shipwrecks from late 1890s and early 1900s indicates that technological breakthroughs, obviously from this generation have been able to solve a mystery from many generations ago. I hope we don't have to wait that long obviously to solve this extraordinary aviation mystery.

Kim Landers: So who decides whether the search will ever be resumed? Is it Malaysia, because the plane was registered there?

Darren Chester: Well it has been primarily Malaysia's call in that regard, but we have had a tripartite agreement where the three countries have worked together very well in terms of making those decisions. Now Australia's responsibility has been around the underwater search efforts, so the ATSB, based in Canberra, has taken the lead role in terms of the underwater search effort. The Malaysian Government itself is doing the investigation into the events leading up to…

Kim Landers: So it's up to Malaysia to decide whether it's ever going to resume again?

Darren Chester: Well primarily because it is an aircraft of the flag state from Malaysia it is primarily the Malaysian responsibility, but we have been directly involved at obviously a ministerial level and a departmental level in conversations right throughout these past three years, and it has been a good example, an excellent example of our nations working together.

Kim Landers: If I could turn to another matter, Greg Hunt is poised to be the new Health Minister. Will your colleague be able to take the fight up to Labor in this crucial portfolio?

Darren Chester: Well, I'm not going to pre-empt any announcement from the Prime Minister about the team he selects to be in Cabinet, but I have known Greg Hunt throughout my parliamentary career for the past eight years. He is a very talented Minister; he's done a great job in the shadow roles and now in the senior roles in Government. If he is in line for a new role, I'd certainly support him in his efforts.

Kim Landers: Is he up to the job?

Darren Chester: Well I have just said, Greg is a very talented Minister, he has been a Member of Parliament now for well in excess of ten years. He is a great local member in terms of representing a very diverse electorate; he has taken on senior roles in the past and done very well. I'm not going to pre-empt the Prime Minister's decision, but if it is Greg Hunt that takes on a new role, I'm sure he'll do a great job.

Kim Landers: Well Minister, thank you very much for speaking with AM.

Darren Chester: I appreciate your interest.