Transcript—Press Conference, Melbourne

Interview

DCI015/2017

18 January 2017

Subjects: Underwater search for MH370 suspended, cabinet reshuffle

Darren Chester: I would like to begin by firstly acknowledging this is a frustrating day and a day of great sadness for the families and friends of all those on board MH370—the 239 passengers and crew who disappeared almost three years ago. I want to acknowledge also today the Australian Transport Safety Bureau officials here with me, Greg Hood and Peter Foley, the Lead Investigator, who have pulled together an extraordinary effort in terms of coordinating Australia's commitment to the underwater search in quite extraordinary circumstances. I would like to remind everyone that the search for MH370 has in many ways been at the very cutting edge of science and technology, and certainly tested the limits of human endeavour in this very inhospitable part of the world.

The search has occurred almost 2,500 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia in some of the most inhospitable waters in the world. There are times the rescue, or the search vessels had been working in conditions with sea states of between 15 and 20 metre waves. The underwater search was being carried out in the section of the ocean where the depths reached up to six kilometres, so by any stretch of the imagination it has been an extraordinarily difficult search.

So I would like to commend the ATSB and everyone involved in the search effort, our partners from around the world and also those who have been at sea over these past two and a half years.

Can I also acknowledge that in July of last year, the People's Republic of China, Malaysian Government, and the Australian Government met and discussed the future of the search for MH370. At that time it was decided that once we completed the 120,000 square kilometre highest probability search area, once that was completed, in the absence of any credible new evidence leading to a specific location of the aircraft, the search would be suspended at that time. Tragically, it is a sad fact we have reached that time.

The Fugro Equator, the search vessel which has been working on the final passes in the southern Indian Ocean has completed its search effort and is now returning to Western Australia. So it is with some level of sadness, certainly with a great deal of frustration and disappointment that I stand here and acknowledge that the search, the underwater search area effort has been suspended.

But I would like to again express on behalf of the Government our support and empathy for the families and friends of all those on board, express our thanks to the ATSB and the entire search team, but also acknowledge the incredible work and the partnership that has been developed between my own department and the governments of Malaysia and the People's Republic of China as we have worked together in this search which has been of historic proportions. It has been the largest search in aviation history. It hasn't been successful at this stage, but that doesn't mean that there hasn't been every effort made by the search teams and by everyone involved.

So with those few words, can I welcome Greg Hood to make some comments on behalf of the ATSB.

Greg Hood: Thanks, Minister. As the ATSB's Chief Commissioner, I wish to reiterate my heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of the 239 people on board Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Having met with several family members personally, I have witnessed firsthand their profound and sustained grief. With yesterday's departure from the search area the vessel Fugro Equator, this unprecedented underwater search is now complete, having covered over 120,000 square kilometres of the southern Indian Ocean, almost 2,500 kilometres south-west of Perth, over an area twice the size of Tasmania in depths, as the Minister mentioned, of water between 3,500 metres and 6,000 metres deep.

This has been the largest and most challenging underwater search operation in history, and we have a high degree of confidence now that the aircraft is not in the area in which we have searched. I would like to express my gratitude to all those involved in the search to date, including the crew of the Fugro Equator, who are now heading home, and the crews and client representatives of all vessels involved in the search—Fugro Discovery, Zhu Kezhen, Haixun 01, Dong Hai Jiu 101, Fugro Supporter, Havila Harmony and GO Phoenix.

The Fugro crews in particular have been searching non-stop for more than two and a half years in what are some of the most extreme ocean conditions anywhere in the world. They have endured both summer tropical cyclones and heavy winter seas with wave heights at times of more than 20 metres. They have also had to contend with medical emergencies and technical difficulties with sophisticated equipment whilst five days steaming from the nearest land. They have done all this while maintaining extraordinary professionalism and dedication to finding the aircraft. The crews on the search vessels have spent significant time, including two Christmas-New Year periods away from their own families.

I would also like to personally express my gratitude to all of those people involved in the most difficult of tasks—defining the underwater search area with very limited data, including the team of experts from the search strategy working group—that's Inmarsat, Thales, Boeing, Defence Science and Technology group, and our investigation colleagues from the Air Accident Investigation Branch of the United Kingdom and the National Transportation Safety Board of the United States. Together with the experts from CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, and universities from around Australia, they have come together in an attempt to apply the best possible science to find the aircraft and bring closure to the families of the 239 souls on board.

As the Minister stated, although the underwater search is suspended, some residual search-related activity is continuing, including debris drift analysis and further detailed analysis of satellite imagery. This activity is anticipated to conclude by the end of February 2017. The ATSB will continue to support any further requests by Malaysia, including the examination of any further debris that may come ashore in months to come. It would also be remiss of me not to pay tribute to my own team at the ATSB. They have lived and breathed nothing but professionalism, dedication, compassion, and optimism that we would locate the aircraft and those on board. The suspension of the search after more than two and a half years will be felt very deeply by all of us.

With the Minister's concurrence, we will take questions for either the Minister, myself or Peter Foley, the program director.

Question: May I ask you about the information that was released last month regarding another search area, a 25,000 square kilometre section with a high degree of probability that MH370 would be there, north of where the current search area is?

Darren Chester: Just for complete clarity, the 120,000 square kilometre highest probability search area was defined on the limited data that was available and has been reference checked, if you like. I will get Greg to comment more fully on that. With the drift analysis from the debris that has been found, and our equipment at the time, through the tripartite agreement through Malaysia and China and Australia was to complete the 120,000 square kilometre search area and to suspend the search in the absence of any credible new evidence leading to a specific location of MH370. Now the information put forward last month is in the order of another potential search area; if you were going to search somewhere else, that was regarded as the place you would start next if you were to extend the search and provide more resources to an area of 25,000 square kilometres.

No one is coming to me as the Minister and saying we know where MH370 is. The new information, if you like, or the position put forward by the experts has been that if you were going to extend the search into a new area, this is where you would target next.

Question: If more credible information comes forward, will the search resume?

Darren Chester: I don't rule out a future underwater search by any stretch. It is a question of if you have credible new information which leads to a specific location. It would be a matter for the Malaysian Government primarily, but certainly given the close relationship we have had with Malaysia during this process, I would expect some further conversations would occur between Australia, Malaysia and China at the time. So we don't rule out a future underwater search. What I'm simply saying is today, the commitment to the 120,000 square kilometre search area has been completed. Fugro Equator is returning to port and the search will be suspended in terms of the underwater effort. As the ATSB Chief has just pointed out, there is other work going on, on land in relation to more detailed analysis of drift patterns, and further if more debris comes to light in the weeks and months ahead, again, it will be a question of working with Malaysia, working with our experts on any further analysis.

Question: How much would the cost of another search, launching another search be? Does the cost factor into any decision?

Darren Chester: That's a fair question. The cost hasn't been the deciding factor in the decision by the tripartite group to suspend the search. There is no question this has been a very costly exercise—in the order of $200 million Australian dollars has been spent on the underwater search effort, of which $60 million has been provided by the Australian Government. Malaysia has contributed more than anyone else in that regard. So it is a costly exercise, but it hasn't been the factor which has led to the decision to suspend the search. We are in a position where we don't want to be providing false hope to the families and friends. We need to have credible new evidence leading to a specific location before we would be reasonably considering future search efforts.

Question: Minister, does the fact we didn't find the plane mean that the experts who drew the search area got it wrong?

Darren Chester: No. No, we need to understand the very limited amount of actual data our experts were dealing with. The fact that we haven't located the aircraft in the 120,000 square kilometre highest probability search area would indicate that the aircraft is not in that area, quite obviously. We have got very high confidence with the technology that has been used and very high confidence the aircraft is not located in that search area, but they had very limited data to work with and they have done an extraordinary job.

As I said in my opening comments, it has been at the edge of science and technological endeavour in terms of pursuing this search effort. It has also been an extraordinary and sometimes heroic human effort as well. I have nothing but praise for the researchers, the experts from the ATSB, the international team that was pulled together to help them in their work but also, equally, the people who have been at sea undertaking the search.

Question: I want to hear about the reaction of some of those people who have been out at sea—who have undertaken that search—to the fact it's suspended?

Darren Chester: Well I can't speak for all of the families obviously I can only speak for the members of families I have spoken to in the last 24 hours. They were very understanding of the decision that had been reached by the three governments. They were aware that we were approaching the completion of the priority search area. They were very thankful to the ATSB and the experts and the searchers for the work they have done. They were appreciative of the Australian Government's effort and understood the decision. So I can only speak for the people I have had conversations with. It is an emotional time for them. It is impossible for any of us to imagine what it would be like to still be searching for your loved ones almost three years after they went missing, and so I don't pretend to understand how they feel, but certainly the conversations I had with them were very positive and understanding and respectful of what is an extraordinarily difficult circumstance for everyone involved.

Question: Minister, Tony Abbott has already tweeted his disappointment about this decision especially he says if experts think there are better places to look. What do you make of those sentiments?

Darren Chester: Well, former Prime Minister Abbott was directly involved in the initial search and so he has a deep and personal interest in the issue as well. I understand that he has been affected by that too. I mean, this has been difficult for everyone involved. Obviously the families have felt that the most, but the experts who have been working on this project, this has consumed their life for the best part of three years. This is a disappointing and a frustrating day for them as well, and I understand that former Prime Minister Abbott has some concerns as well. He is entitled to express those opinions, but it is not a decision that was reached lightly by the three governments in July last year, and we remain open to further analysis of whatever data becomes available into the future.

Question: What about those people who have taken part in the search? Those people who have been on the ships at sea, put in all those hours? I'm wondering about some of their reactions to the end of this?

Darren Chester: Well I will have the opportunity next Monday to welcome the Fugro Equator back to shore. I will be travelling to Perth to meet with the crew on behalf of the Australian Government to express my thanks and gratitude on behalf, not just our government and our people, but the aviation world more generally. I did have the opportunity, I think it was earlier last year, to meet with one of the crews in Fremantle, and again at that time expressed my thanks for the work they are doing. I think they will be disappointed as well. I think they will be disappointed they haven't been successful at this stage. This is a matter of professional pride. They have been out there doing everything they possibly can, experiencing some pretty horrendous conditions at times, and they were determined to find the aircraft and at this stage we haven't found the aircraft.

That doesn't rule out the fact that in the future, through better analysis of data, if new technology becomes available or through improved equipment or something of that nature, that we may have a breakthrough in the future. We need to recognise that during this search effort we have actually found two shipwrecks of more than 100 years old. So we have solved a couple of mysteries from the late 1890s and early 1900s, but unfortunately we haven't solved the mystery of MH370 at this stage, but it doesn't mean that people are not still passionately trying to pull together the best information they can.

Question: Do you think it will ever be found?

Darren Chester: Well, it is an extraordinary aviation mystery as it stands today. I am hopeful that we will have a breakthrough in the future. We need to prepare ourselves for the sad and tragic reality that in this foreseeable future we may not find MH370, but that doesn't rule out future endeavours or future breakthroughs in terms of data or technology that helps us solve this extraordinary puzzle.

Question: Is that what you mean when you say credible evidence?

Darren Chester: Well that is the critical question. When we talk about credible evidence, what does that mean? Well I don't want to be dismissive of your question in that regard, it means we will know it when we see it. When we get some information or data or a breakthrough that leads us to a specific location, we will know it when we see it, the experts will know it when they see it. And then it will be a question, I presume, of talking with Malaysia, working with our tripartite partners on what happens next. So it is not a closed book by any stretch. The work from the ATSB, as Greg Hood's indicated, will continue in the coming months. It is reasonable to expect that there may be more debris uncovered in the weeks and months and possibly even years ahead which may lead to further information to solving this puzzle.

Question: On another issue, Greg Hunt looks likely to be the next Health Minister. Do you think the Prime Minister wanted that portfolio in the House of Reps?

Darren Chester: Well, you won't be surprised to hear that I'm not going to pre-empt an announcement by the Prime Minister which I understand may be made today. The Prime Minister picks his team; he has got an array of very talented Members of Parliament to choose from. We have a strong Cabinet already, and I think it will continue to deliver everything we promised to the Australian people at the last election. I will leave it to the Prime Minister to make announcements in relation to his executive.

Question: Arthur Sinodinos has also faced ICAC investigations , although he was ultimately cleared, do you think it is a clean slate to have him back in?

Darren Chester: Well the point you make, he was ultimately cleared. Arthur Sinodinos has a long and distinguished career of public service, whether it be as a senior staff member in the former Howard Government, or now as a Senator and as a senior member of the executive in the Turnbull Government, he has made a great contribution to Australian life and I expect him to continue to do that in the future.

Question: Would you support a federal ICAC?

Darren Chester: No, I think the point that the Prime Minister made last week in announcing the need for an independent authority to look at MPs workplace expenses and making sure the public has more confidence in the clarity and transparency of those rules and arrangements in relation to workplace expenses I think that announcement last week has been a very significant one and one that is a major step in the right direction. I think that will achieve the level of confidence the public is looking for.