Radio National Breakfast

Interview

DCI020/2017

23 February 2017

Subjects: Essendon plane crash, Hazelwood power station closure

Fran Kelly: Melbourne's Essendon airport is due reopen to general aviation this morning after that terrible plane crash on Tuesday morning which killed all five people on board, including the pilot. The charter plane had just taken off from Essendon airport when it crashed into a nearby DFO shopping centre. The cause of the crash is still unknown but the incident has raised fresh concerns over the safety of having an airport in such a densely populated suburban area.

Unlike some other countries, Australia's major airports don't require public safety or buffer zones around them to minimise the risk to people living, working or even shopping - near the runways we're talking. Yesterday here on Breakfast, we spoke with local resident Helen van den Berg who's campaigned for years to close Essendon Fields, the scene of Tuesday's tragedy.

[Excerpt]

Helen Van Den Berg: If you're looking at Essendon North, if you're living in Elm Grove, you're within 100 metres from runway 35. That's how close homes are to the end of the runways. That's how close people are. When there is some space, they clutter it up with buildings.

[End of excerpt]

Fran Kelly: That's Helen van den Berg, who lives just a kilometre and a half from Essendon Airport. Well Darren Chester is the Federal Minister for Transport and Infrastructure. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

Darren Chester: Good morning, Fran.

Fran Kelly: I'll come to Helen van den Berg's concerns in a moment but first the latest on the – I think there's now four investigations underway into Tuesday's crash - is there any new information yet?

Darren Chester: Well the critical investigation is by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. The ATSB team had access to the site yesterday for the first time. It was unsafe on the day of the tragic crash. Their critical task now of gathering evidence and I guess there was something of a breakthrough yesterday with the cockpit voice recorder was recovered from the wreckage yesterday and that's on the way to ATSB laboratory in Canberra this morning for further analysis.

So that could contain some important information for the investigators but there's a lot of other work going on in terms of speaking to eye witnesses, securing any video footage that may have been taken by the public or from nearby buildings that exist. There's already about 100 people have indicated they've witnessed something involving the crash or leading up the crash who want to talk to the ATSB so that will go on. It's quite an exhaustive task obviously and the investigators will be on the scene for the next few …

Fran Kelly: Sure so this is a black box effectively that's been recovered. I mean we know effectively from the footage we all have seen that the plane crashed very, very quickly – or got into trouble very quickly after take off. I don't think there's even – well I'm not sure if there was a mayday call or not but is the black box likely to have recorded in there what went on within the engine processes?

Darren Chester: Well the cockpit voice recorder may contain some important information for the investigators and that's why it's gone to Canberra for further analysis. It will feed in to the further investigation task from the ATSB experts. So as much as they're collecting forensic evidence on the ground, it's also about talking to eye witnesses. There were some pilots apparently at Essendon Airport yesterday who, well not yesterday but the previous day who witnessed the incident. They'll be interviewed with other people who may have information for the ATSB.

Fran Kelly: Okay.

Darren Chester: That process will go on and then within 28 days we'll have a factual – preliminary factual report made available to the Government and made available to the public.

Fran Kelly: Talking of pilots there's been some pilots speaking out in the last couple of days since the crash, voicing concerns about governments, state and federal, putting commercial interests and money making ahead of safety and they're talking about the amount of development going on in and around the airports. It was the Howard Government back in 1996 that started to offload airports on long term leases to private owners and after that we started seeing shopping centres being built at the end of runways. In hindsight was this a bad idea?

Darren Chester: No, no it wasn't Fran and it's important to remember that all of this [inaudible] have an enviable safety record when it comes to aviation. I guess that's why it takes us completely by shock when we do have a major incident of this nature. Now last year – and I'm talking 2016, there were 19 fatalities involved in the aviation sector and primarily that involved recreation and general aviation so smaller aircraft and that is in comparison to other nations in the world or even in comparison to our own roads.

Fran Kelly: Sure but no one's questioning our safety record I suppose the point is given that crashes will happen - and you say there were 19 last year and we've seen this tragedy this time - isn't it best to put every rule in place we can to minimise fatalities? And having hospitals or hotels or shopping centres built in and around runways doesn't seem like a great idea.

Darren Chester: Fran, I wasn't trying to downplay the accidents that do occur but in relation to Essendon, we need to keep in mind there were 50,000 aircraft movements through Essendon last year and has a great safety record of - particularly when it comes to delivering essential services to the regional Victorian community. It's critically based in terms of Royal Flying Doctors Service, Air Ambulance, Police Air Wing and the fire bombing services that operate out of Essendon. So there is a risk associated with aviation and we'd need to try and manage those risks as you're describing.

But in terms of any development on or off an airport like Essendon that impacts on the protected airspace around it, it can only be approved or can only proceed if it's approved by my department and if CASA – the Civil Aviation Safety Agency - advises the proposed development would – it is acceptable on a safety basis. So the department mustn't approve the project unless it has CASA approval. So we do have a very stringent set of safety regulations. But tragically accidents or crashes like that have occurred this week do occur from time to time. It's important we do the investigation that's underway right now and not second guess what may or may not …

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Sure we do have safety regulations, I know, but what we don't have is these public safety zones, these buffer zones. Now Premier Andrews told us yesterday let's see what the findings are of the inquiry but he's up for having that discussions. Are you up for having that discussion?

Darren Chester: Well what – the discussion I'm up for having, Fran, is very much around the fact that these airport development plans that are put to me are checked by the Department of Infrastructure, they're checked by Air Service Australia and CASA before they will even come to the Minister and the safety of the travelling public and those on the ground is obviously of paramount importance to everyone …

Fran Kelly: [Interrupts] Okay so sorry to interrupt you there but let me ask you that then, if they are checked from you, we now know that the group who manages this airport in Essendon in the Essendon precinct were getting ready to announce plans to extend the DFO to add a second hotel and a hospital. Those plans are now on hold. Were you aware of that? Had that gone to you? And should that expansion now go on hold?

Darren Chester: Well the airports put their major development plans, sorry the federally leased airports put their major development plans to the department and the Minister for approval and it's assessed on a safety basis. Now no one is suggesting that we should be putting development in place which poses an unacceptable safety risk for community. And as Premier Andrews indicated and we're (inaudible)talking today we need to see the outcomes of this investigation before we leap to any conclusion. I think it's premature to be speculating on what may or may not happen in the future until we get the ATSB report. But we have got and I'm going to reassure the flying public that we have got an enviable safety record here in Australia. We're constantly working on improving aviation safety and we need to find out what actually occurred this week before we leap to conclusions.

Fran Kelly: You're listening to RN Breakfast, it's four minutes to 7. Our guest is the National Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester. Can I come to another issue in your local electorate? You're the Federal Member for Gippsland, home to the Hazelwood Power Station in Morwell which will close next month. Along with it will go I think 750 direct jobs. Back on December you said and I quote: jobs and future opportunities for young people remain my highest priority and we have several months to get plans in place to minimise the impact on the region. Well, Minister, time's just about run out. What jobs and plans and future opportunities have you come up with?

Darren Chester: Well that is the critical point Fran. The Hazelwood power station provides 20 per cent of Victoria's energy supply. It's not just to provide a base load energy, they provide base load jobs and we're going to see a lot of people out of work coming 1 April this year because the decision made by Engie the French based company. Now, I've been working with my federal colleagues. We have a $43 million investment and jobs package which we're working with the State Government on. There's been some small projects announced in terms of local infrastructure. I'm still working with my relevant state ministers in terms of other infrastructure projects that might be able to be rolled forward in the Gippsland and broader Latrobe Valley region.

Fran Kelly: Can you give any sense of those to people now who might be listening? I mean in four or five- five or six weeks they're going to have no job. For instance is there any major project like upgrading the Gippsland rail line which everyone says is pretty notorious?

Darren Chester: Yeah the Gippsland rail line is the least reliable in the state and it's one that I'm very keen to see improved in partnership with the State Government. The bottom line Fran- and this is particularly difficult as a local Member of Parliament, when you know that there's going to be hundreds of people who are going to lose their job on one day there's not going to be a replacement job for them the day after. There's no question about that. It's going to take us some time to work our way through this. There'll be some people obviously some older workers at the Hazelwood plant who are at a retirement age and they'll take their benefits they receive on retirement and be very happy about the arrangements. But others, the younger workers with mortgages and car repayments, they're going to have to find some opportunities, perhaps some in the other power stations in the valley which will have some vacancies available. Perhaps some with the Australian paper which is a major producer of copy paper in Latrobe Valley as well. But there's going to be some tough times ahead and that's why we need the state and federal governments working together to invest in new projects that can take some of that pressure off…

Fran Kelly: Okay.

Darren Chester: That pressure, but it's going to be a tough time ahead.

Fran Kelly: We look forward to hearing about those new projects in more detail. Darren Chester, thank you for joining us.

Darren Chester: Thanks for your time Fran.

Fran Kelly: Darren Chester is the Transport and Infrastructure Minister and the Federal Member for Gippsland.