Transcript—Radio National Breakfast

Interview

DCI017/2017

18 January 2017

Subjects: Underwater search for MH370 suspended

Hamish Macdonald: The Transport Minister Darren Chester joins us from Melbourne, very good morning to you.

Darren Chester: Good morning, Hamish.

Hamish Macdonald: Why have you taken this decision, along with the other parties involved?

Darren Chester: Well you quite correctly indicated there is other parties involved. In July last year, the Malaysian, Chinese and Australian governments met in Malaysia and discussed the future of the search for MH370. At that time we agreed that at the completion of the 120,000 square kilometre high priority search area, so the area identified by the experts as the most likely resting place for MH370, at the completion of that search area we would suspend the search if there was no credible new information leading to a specific location of the aircraft. So that was the decision that was made in July, and as of yesterday the search vessel on location, about 2,500 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia has completed its final pass in that region and the decision has been made to suspend the search pending any new information.

Hamish Macdonald: But there has, has there not, been other expertise that has suggested other places, other specific places, to look?

Darren Chester: Absolutely, the ATSB which has been leading the underwater search on behalf of the Australian Government and has been drawing on experts from around the world. These were the experts who identified the 120,000 square kilometre search area to begin with, so they were the people we have relied on right throughout this process. They have indicated that if there was going to be an extension of the search area, the next most likely place to look would be another 25,000 kilometre search area. Now they are not saying, no one's saying to me, we know for a fact that is where the aircraft is, they are simply saying that if we were to extend the search, if there were more resources put in to the search, you would go there next. So this is a disappointing and a frustrating day for all, particularly for the families and friends of the loved ones, and I have had the opportunity to speak to some of the family members in the last 24 hours, and they understand the reality of this very difficult decision.

Hamish Macdonald:I'm just wondering how those two things match up though, because as you said, when you met with the other parties involved a year ago, it was agreed that it would be cancelled, the search would be cancelled, suspended, if there was no other information. You have just articulated that there is other information. I don't understand, therefore, why you have continued with this decision to suspend it all together.

Darren Chester: Well what I'm saying to you, Hamish, is the decision made in July last year was quite specific in relation to credible new information leading to a specific location of the aircraft. We simply don't have new information leading to a specific location of the aircraft. We have, from the analysis, the next best place to look. No one's saying it is guaranteed it's over there. If that was the case, there would be a whole different scenario; that is not the case at all. What we have is if you were going to continue the search this is where you'd go to next, and that's simply not regarded as meeting that evidence threshold, if you like, for extending the search.

Hamish Macdonald: So it is effectively not credible.

Darren Chester: Well no, that's not, sorry Hamish, you are misinterpreting what I'm saying. The suspension of the search after completing the 120,000 square kilometre highest priority search area, was a decision which was flagged in July last year, pending any new information, credible new information that would lead to a specific location. What we are saying is we don't have a specific location, even though the analysis would suggest that would be the next place you would go to, given that you haven't found it in that first 120,000 square kilometres. This is not a criticism of anyone, or implying that they have got it wrong by any stretch.

They had very little information to begin with, in terms of data to actually work out their modelling from. There have been pieces of debris wash up subsequent to the original search area being identified, which would suggest we are in the general vicinity, in the right area if you like. But it is a vast ocean; we are talking about an incredibly difficult place to search, Hamish, we are talking about an ocean depth in excess of four kilometres, it is 2,500 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. They have experience sea states in excess of 15 metres during the search. It has been a heroic undertaking in terms of the search effort.

While it has not been successful at this stage, and that is disappointing and frustrating for everyone involved, particularly the families, but also the people who have been involved in the ATSB, and analyst search vessels, that doesn't mean it hasn't been an important undertaking or a very extraordinary effort by the nations involved in working together to try and solve this extraordinary aviation mystery.

Hamish Macdonald: But to be clear though, the next area that is suggested for searching is a smaller area, it is 25,000 kilometres, to the north of the area already searched.

Darren Chester: That's correct. I guess, you know, for anyone listening today, it is one of those difficult decisions you need to make from time to time in life. You are sort of damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you continue the search area you would quite rightly be asking me questions, well why are you spending another 20, 30, 40 or 50 million dollars of taxpayers' money on a search which has already cost the three governments in the order of $200 million, but by not continuing the search, you are quite rightly asking well why not. So it is a difficult question; there is no perfect answer to it.

It has been the largest search in aviation history. The $200 million has been spent across the three countries, about $60 million of that from Australia in terms of the underwater search effort, and we don't begrudge that spending at all, don't get me wrong in that regard. It is about doing the best we can with the resources we have to try and solve this mystery, and at this stage we haven't solved it.

Hamish Macdonald: On that spending, $200 million as you point out, China only contributed $20 million, even though 150 of the passengers were Chinese. Could this search still be going if Beijing had stumped up a greater share?

Darren Chester:I'm not going to offer criticism of our partner states. I mean, the People's Republic of China and the Malaysian Government were part of the tripartite approach to this search effort.

Hamish Macdonald: It is a stark contrast though, isn't it?

Darren Chester: The Chinese Government also provided search vessels as well, in terms of- in kind, technical expertise to the search effort. So it is not a question, or not a day for me to be pointing fingers at anyone in that regard. It has been an extraordinary undertaking involving Malaysia, the People's Republic of China, and Australia in terms of the underwater search, but more broadly, international experts have been brought together as part of the ATSB's work to further analyse the limited data we had available to us, to work through the drift modelling of the debris that has been found. In the future there will be more analysis of the debris, there will be more analysis of the drift patterns, there is more detailed analysis of satellite imagery going on as well. So while the activity at sea may have been suspended, there is still working going on back on land here in Australia and we are still very keen to work with international experts in that regard.

Hamish Macdonald: We will have to leave it there, appreciate your time this morning Darren Chester.

Darren Chester: I appreciate your interest, thank you.