ABC Radio Melbourne—Mornings

Interview

DCI019/2017

22 February 2017

Subjects: Essendon Airport, Youth detention centre

Jon Faine: Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Darren Chester, he's the National MP for Gippsland and he's in charge of things like civil aviation and airports. Mr Chester, good morning to you.

Darren Chester: Good morning, Jon.

Jon Faine: Is Essendon still a suitable place for an airport?

Darren Chester: Well firstly Jon, obviously our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those who lost their loved ones yesterday. It was a tragic crash, and the Premier, Daniel Andrews, reflected on that yesterday well on behalf of the people of Victoria.

We are so used to having an outstanding safety record in Australia that when a plane crash does occur, it is a catastrophic event and people are shaken by it. But we need to remember we do have an outstanding safety record in Australia. We have very well trained pilots and a very well maintained aircraft fleet. But when these crashes occur, they are properly investigated, and that is what is occurring now.

Jon Faine: You didn't answer my question. Is Essendon still a suitable place for an airport?

Darren Chester: No, I was going to get to it, Jon. It is a valid question that people are asking but we need to let this investigation take its course in terms of what has actually occurred, has there been an engine failure? It doesn't help for me to be speculating now about what may have occurred in the lead up to that crash.

Jon Faine: No, and in a way it is irrelevant. It doesn't really matter what caused the crash, the fact is there's a crash involving a plane into buildings, a popular shopping centre, as has been several times remarked by all sorts of different people from aviation through to just local planners, and the council. If it had been later in the day, there would have been a lot of people in that building.

Darren Chester: Exactly right, Jon. Now to answer your question, it isn't as straight forward as should it be there or should it not be there. You need to understand the role of the Essendon Airport as it stands today…

Jon Faine: It was the National MPs who campaigned when Jeff Kennett wanted to shut it down 15 years ago. It was your party that campaigned to keep it because of its role as a base for the Air Ambulance.

Darren Chester: Well that is the point I was trying to get to. It plays a critical role in terms of saving lives in Australia and Victoria in particular as well. The essential services that are based out of there with the Police Air Wing, with the fixed wing Air Ambulance …

Jon Faine: They can be moved, they can all be moved.

Darren Chester: …with the firebombing services in terms of the water-bombing service provided from there…

Jon Faine: Can also be moved. They can be moved to Avalon, an airport that was built up to be a domestic and international airport and that's failed. It is sitting there, it's just down the road. Avalon would be a better place.

Darren Chester: Well that is your assessment today. When someone is flying from rural or remote Victoria wanting to access some of the best surgeons, best doctors in the world—being able to land at Essendon within 10 kilometres of the CBD, may be the difference between saving a life and losing a life. So there is a role.

Jon Faine: But how if indeed it is that desperate, if a fixed wing aircraft lands at Essendon, there is a helicopter transfer to the Alfred or the Austin or wherever they need to, just in exactly the same way as there would be from Avalon to the Austin or the Alfred or wherever they need to go.

Darren Chester: I don't actually think we are disagreeing too much on that point. What I'm trying to say is, the fixed wing service is a critical service for rural and remote Victoria, in addition to the helimed services which operate in the case particularly with road trauma when it is particularly time critical. But we need to understand the full role of Essendon in the greater transport picture in Victoria. So I have just outlined its role in essential services, which is critical.

Jon Faine: Which can all be moved.

Darren Chester: Well there is about 4,200 people that are employed out there on a daily basis, now …

Jon Faine: How many of them in aviation though now? A diminishing proportion.

Darren Chester: Well I wouldn't say diminishing. There is actually plans for growth in terms of the Essendon aviation activity. And if you were to shut down Essendon—and I'm not suggesting for a second…

Jon Faine: Sorry what is the growth in the aviation activity?

Darren Chester: If you were going to shut down Essendon, then you would have to transfer—you are saying to Avalon, well a lot of people want to actually land in the city and won't be able to get their business or whatever it might be…

Jon Faine: Well they'd want to land in Swanson Street if they could, but they can't so what's so special about Essendon these days? Because it is increasing built up. There is an eight storey Hyatt Hotel underway, a hospital is being planned, there is hectares and hectares of commercial development as the runways become more and more crowded.

Darren Chester: Well it is probably going to be better if I try to finish a sentence off occasionally. But, what I'm trying to describe to you is if you move that operation and I am not suggesting for a second that you would then you are going to put additional pressure onto Tullamarine in particular and it is going to struggle to meet those capacity demands. Avalon isn't necessarily going to meet the same essential services demands that the public have put on Essendon…

Jon Faine: Why not? You say that boldly, but on what basis do you say it? Why?

Darren Chester: Well Melbourne's already having difficulties at times to meet the capacity requirements in terms of expectations of travellers, when they are going to get the services they want to get to where they want to go in Australia. Essendon's role isn't just essential services, Essendon has a role in terms of there is a lot of corporate activity there—with corporate jets landing there on a regular basis that won't necessarily get access to Tullamarine. There's also…

Jon Faine: Avalon I say to you again Minister. No one's talking about putting little planes next to huge planes at Tullamarine, we are talking about Avalon's potential to meet this.

Darren Chester: There's also quite large aircraft. For example there is a Dubbo service flying into Melbourne on a regular basis now. People who are travelling want to travel as close as they can to the city and then go about their business in a way that you wouldn't be able to do if you were at Avalon. Now…

Jon Faine: Have you ever used Avalon? Recently?

Darren Chester: I've used Avalon on only a handful of occasions…

Jon Faine: It's only half an hour away from the CBD.

Darren Chester: I have used Avalon on a handful of occasions. I have used Essendon probably dozens of times over the years because of its location close to the CBD and the fact that charter aircraft tend to land there and then people go about their business and get a full day's work done and then go on with what else they might be doing that day.

Jon Faine: Surely it makes more sense to accept that even though only 15 years ago a 99 year lease was issued for the commercial development of the perimeter of the airport, that its time is running out, it's not going to last the full 99 years of the lease, and the Commonwealth—you as the landlord, you as the owner should start renegotiating the future of this particular patch?

Darren Chester: Well I think we can have that conversation, but I'm not sure that the time to have the conversation is the day after a serious crash. Now I think there is an instinctive reaction that comes from people at the moment they have had this crash, and we need to allow the ATSB to go about and do its job. Now the ATSB, that is the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, has a role now to gather the evidence, pull together any forensic material they can to try and understand what has actually occurred yesterday. They will be on site today. The Victoria police will hand over the site to the ATSB today.

Tragically they were only able to retrieve the five victims' bodies yesterday evening because the site was still unsafe and there was a risk of a wall collapsing. So once that site is made safe, our investigators will go through and do that work. And we'll expect a report within 28 days. That report is made public and people will be able to see from the preliminary factual report from the ATSB, what they believe has caused the crash. So that is one part of it. But I accept there is a broader public debate about the future of Essendon and I'm willing to participate in that debate. But we need to understand…

Jon Faine: Well you can either lead it or you can follow it. Which one would you rather do?

Darren Chester: Well I'm saying to you as I sit here today, I believe the Essendon Airport has an important future as an airport providing the services that, not only metropolitan Melbourne wants, but regional Victoria wants as well. There is 50,000 movements per year into Essendon at the moment. That has an enviable safety record, despite the crash that occurred yesterday. There is a lot of aviation activity that occurs at Essendon in a safe manner, day after day, night after night, year after year.

But when we have a catastrophic event like yesterday we need to do the full investigation as you'd expect and I expect this conversation will continue, and I'll work with the Premier Daniel Andrews and I'll work with the ATSB and CASA to try and find the best way forward.

Jon Faine: It's not as if there aren't alternatives and there aren't options so if you just sit with a clean sheet and say well does it make sense to maintain a busy airport in the middle of what now is an intensely built up suburban and commercial environment, it just doesn't. It's…

Darren Chester: But, Jon, on that basis we will be shutting down airports right around Australia and throughout the world…

Jon Faine: Where else is there an airport in an area as intensely built up as that?

Darren Chester: Well if you look at Moorabbin, it's very intensely developed…

Jon Faine: It's not commercial development at that level, the intensity …

Darren Chester: Well you have got houses all around Moorabbin, you have got houses all around Archerfield, you have got commercial activity all around Archerfield in Brisbane, around Bankstown in Sydney…

Jon Faine: And Bankstown's had exactly this debate.

Darren Chester: …and throughout the world. Well, Jon, the point I am making is this is a difficult day for the aviation sector. The ATSB has to do its work and that investigation should be allowed to proceed. I accept we can have this conversation about whether airports should remain where they are, but we need a full appreciation of the social and economic value of that airport where it is right now. You are saying you can move to Avalon, I'm saying it is not as simple as that, and I'm saying that there are activities that occur at Essendon which are located there for very good reasons, being close to the CBD, which are important to people whose time is important to them in terms of it's time-critical. Whether it is because of an essential services incident, or because of a corporate of business related reason, and the economic activity that goes with that airport is very significant to the state of Victoria, so…

Jon Faine: So it is the National Party again, 15 years on from last time we had this debate, it is the National Party again saying please leave Essendon alone.

Darren Chester: Well Jon, I represent a large rural and regional constituency. When people in my community get sick, I like to think they can get to the best available surgeon and doctors quite quickly. Now sometimes it will be a helimed, they will be helicoptered direct to the hospital involved, other times if they are not able to travel in a vehicle there will be a fixed-wing aircraft involved. I think they are entitled to have access, as close as reasonably to the best doctors and surgeons in the world, so that is a critical point.

Jon Faine: So we need to do a comparison of the time it would take if you in fact did develop Avalon as the alternative, given the excellent infrastructure that is down there and being barely used, I might say, totally underutilised other than this coming weekend, whenever it is, next weekend when there's the air show and they will love the fact that we're getting a mention in for that there. But the fact that the community wants best value and you have got a facility there and if it needs to be fixed-wing drop off with helicopter transfer that can be done just as effectively with, I would have thought and it's worth doing the study, minimal additional delay if it's done from Avalon instead of Essendon. Why don't you commission that study so that at least we know?

Darren Chester: Well Jon, what we will do right now is go through the ATSB investigation and allow that to take its course without bias, without influence from me obviously, and then separate to that I am up for the conversation with the Victorians about where they see the future of Essendon. I see it as an airport with associated commercial activity and aviation related activity on site as well. My role as a Minister is to work with CASA, Airservices Australia and the ATSB to ensure that any development occurs at an airport like occurs in a safe way, and that is a challenge for us all.

Jon Faine: Alright. Just very briefly. You are from Gippsland, you are a National Party MP. Your colleague Russell Northe called on the State Government to rethink the plans for a youth detention centre in Werribee and re-locate it out to Gippsland. Does that have your support?

Darren Chester: Well it is obviously a decision for the State Government in partnership with…

Jon Faine: Would you encourage them to rethink it?

Darren Chester: Well Gippsland has a long history of actually housing detention centres in various forms, whether it has been medium or low security prisons. We have had them at Won Wron, Morwell, and at Sale, now the facility at Fulham. I am open to that conversation with my community. We are obviously a community going through some pretty tough times with job losses in pending. The opportunity to build a new facility there that would create jobs in the short and longer term is something that I think Russell Northe is quite right to advocate for.

Jon Faine: So it has your support as well. Thank you on all of those issues. A difficult day and thank you for being prepared to deal with those complex issues for us this morning.

Darren Chester, the National MP for Gippsland in the Turnbull Coalition Federal Government, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport.