18 January 2017
Subjects: Underwater search for MH370 suspended, cabinet reshuffle
Tony Jones: Joining us on the line now is our Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister, Darren Chester. Good morning to you Minister.
Darren Chester: Good morning, Tony.
Tony Jones: Well as I said, it would've been with a heavy heart that the authorities decided to call this search off.
Darren Chester: Oh absolutely, Tony. This wasn't a decision that anyone would make lightly. It's been a difficult and frustrating day for everyone involved, from obviously the families and friends of the 239 people who were on board and it's a sad occasion for them, and also for the search team. It has been a search of historic proportions. It is the largest search in aviation history. It has been almost three years. But it's been at the edge of scientific and technical expertise in the sense that they have been working in a search area which is more than 2,500 kilometres off the coast Western Australia, and they are searching an area basically half the size of Victoria, made all the more difficult because we are talking of depths of water between three and six kilometres deep. So it has been at the edge of scientific and technical expertise. It has been at the edge of human endeavour. They have had some pretty tough conditions to endure on those search vessels. So it has been a huge effort and it is sad that it hasn't been successful to this stage.
Tony Jones: It has cost Australian taxpayers around $90 million for the search. Was that a factor in it, the cost?
Darren Chester: Well the total cost of the underwater search has been in the order of $200 million, of which $60 million has been from Australia. There were some additional costs associated with the air search in the early stages which may be where you have got that, the $90 million figure from. The question about cost is a difficult one. The decision to suspend the search was made by Malaysia, China and Australia in consultation with experts in July of last year. We made that decision that once we completed the 120,000 highest probability search area, we would suspend the search if we didn't have credible new evidence leading to a specific location.
So that's where we got to as of yesterday. The search vessel the Fugro Equator, has finished its last path and is returning back to the coast of Western Australia. In the absence of any new information leading us to a specific location of where MH370 may be situated.
Tony Jones: So I mean everyone was confident, as you said, the nations that came up with the decision to actually call this off, confident that everything that can be done has been done?
Darren Chester: Absolutely, it's been an extraordinary search effort. We have had the Australian Transport Safety Bureau leading the underwater search here in Australia. They have been guided and assisted by experts from throughout the world, and it is a tough day for them as well, because they have put their heart and souls in this, their professional expertise, their passion for solving this mystery has been extraordinary, and they have been working hard to try and fix and solve this problem for us and they haven't been able to. So they are frustrated by that obviously.
But there comes a time I guess, in terms of—we don't want to be giving false hope to the families and friends that we know where MH370 is. We don't know where it is. We have done the best with what we could and with the limited amount of data we had available to us. You correctly indicated there has been some debris wash up over the last couple of years, and three of those pieces of debris have been positively identified as coming from MH370. There has been other debris which is of interest to us, that we haven't been able to absolutely 100 per cent identify as being from the aircraft.
We can expect that more will come up in the future, and if that occurs we will work with Malaysia. There will be some more analysis of the drift patterns. There will be some more research into either can this piece of debris tell us anymore? Can we solve the puzzle with either new information or new technological advances? We haven't closed our minds to future efforts, but as we stand today, the search will stay suspended in terms of the underwater search effort.
Tony Jones: There has been a whole range of theories as to what might have happened to this plane; everything from a rogue pilot, to hijacking by ISIS. Have you got any theories yourself?
Darren Chester: Oh look I can understand why there are theories and different hypotheses put forward. In the absence of finding the aircraft, you are going to leave yourselves open to a whole range of conspiracy theories through to very logical theories.
Now, the mystery at this stage is unsolved and as humans we don't like mysteries, we want to try and solve all these problems. We can't solve this one and that is why it is so deeply frustrating. It is not for me to speculate on what may have occurred in the lead-up to the disappearance of the aircraft. Our role, as Australians and through the ATSB, has been to coordinate that underwater search effort and that is what we have done to the best of our ability with our international partners. Unfortunately we haven't found the aircraft at this stage. We will keep doing that work I referred to, that debris drift analysis, there will be some more analysis of the satellite imagery—that is continuing—and if new debris comes forward or new information comes forward we will certainly assess that at the time and then we will have that conversation with Malaysia and the People's Republic of China about what happens next. But as it stands today, the underwater search activity has been suspended and there is some other work going on here on land in Australia.
Tony Jones: And you can certainly understand. How were the Australians victims—how were the families of—how were they notified of this?
Darren Chester: I spoke to a couple of the families yesterday, the ones that were keen to have a chat with me, we had that conversation and I have got to say that they were very understanding. Obviously none of us can understand what it is like to be having these three years unanswered questions of their loved ones going missing, so they have dealt with a very traumatic experience, and they are still dealing with it, they are still living with that every day. We had a good conversation about the activity that has been undertaken; they have been informed all the way through from the Australian department involved.
Look it is a tough conversation to have with people when they have lost loved ones and they have got so many questions unanswered and we haven't been able to provide the answers to them, but they were very understanding and appreciative of the role of the ATSB and the people on the search vessels. They thanked the Government for its role, the Australian Government, for assisting, but they of course haven't given up hope that at some stage in the future we will solve this mystery.
Tony Jones: Yeah, well let's hope you do. It would certainly put a lot of minds at ease.
Now, just before you go have you got an email yet from the boss, from the PM to say you've got the Health Minister's job, or as Greg Hunt got that?
Darren Chester: Oh you won't…
Tony Jones: I saw your name mentioned in dispatches.
Darren Chester: I don't know who put me in those dispatches, Tony, I haven't had any phone calls from the boss today. I'm certainly not going to pre-empt any announcement he might make, I think that would be a very poor career move for me to make.
Darren Chester: I understand the Prime Minister, it looks like he is going to make some announcements today and I haven't had any conversations with him about any of those portfolio responsibility changes. I think I have got the best job in Cabinet in Infrastructure and Transport. We are trying to build the infrastructure Victoria needs—you and I have talked about that in the past—and I love the role I have got. If I'm lucky enough to continue, I'll keep trying to do that to the best to my ability.
Tony Jones: Hey, when Malcolm Turnbull does ring you on your mobile, what's it come up as?
Darren Chester: It comes up as Malcolm PM on my phone. That's the name I put there, and it certainly gets your attention when you see that name show up on your screen.
Tony Jones: I bet it does. Alright, well let's hope it comes up in the next hour or so and he says you have just moved up a rung or two in Cabinet.
Darren Chester: Oh, good on you Tony. But seriously I appreciate your interest, and sincerely this is a difficult and frustrating day for those families of MH370, but I think the Australian public largely understands that we have had a real crack at trying to find it and hopefully in the future we can get a breakthrough.
Tony Jones: Oh absolutely, and we appreciate your time this morning, Darren.
Darren Chester: All the best, Tony