ABC Statewide Drive

Interview

DCI056/2017

01 June 2017

Subjects: Malaysia Airlines incident in Melbourne

Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester is the Transport Minister and the Nats Member for Gippsland. Darren Chester, good afternoon.

Darren Chester: Good afternoon, Nicole.

Nicole Chvastek: What a terrifying event that has happened in the skies over Melbourne in the last 24 hours.

Darren Chester: Well, absolutely Nicole. You don't need much of imagination to think how worried you'd be yourself in that situation and the concern you would have if you had an incident where someone has apparently tried to force their way towards the cockpit and some claims have been made about what device he may have had. So for the people on board it would have been a pretty harrowing experience and I am just thankful that passengers and crew seem to have taken appropriate action and the plane was turned around and the situation was resolved safely.

Nicole Chvastek: What more information can you bring us? You must have more updated information than we do.

Darren Chester: Well, probably not much more than you have already heard from the Victoria Police, and I understand the Premier has had a press conference today. But we understand that it wasn't a terrorism related offence; it seems to be an individual with some mental health issues and something has led to him behaving this way.

Importantly, it did test our security protocols and I think they have performed well in the sense that the plane was safely returned to Melbourne and all passengers and crew safely disembarked. Now we will obviously review what has gone on and if there are changes we need to make, we will make them. But I think the important thing is that people have acted well in the circumstances, in difficult circumstances, and I am just thankful that, in many ways, it turned out to be close to a false alarm, I guess, that it has been nothing more than an unruly passenger and it has been resolved.

Nicole Chvastek: That doesn't ameliorate the trauma, though, that those passengers, the 200-plus passengers, were feeling as they sat on that aircraft for 90 minutes not knowing if their life was going to end any moment.

Darren Chester: Absolutely, Nicole. I am not downplaying this at all. It reflects very much on the point that I make many times in my role as a Minister involved with transport, that the safety of the travelling public is our number one priority and that is why we have those things in place when you go to an airport where you have the body scanning devices, the x-ray machines, where you have on board, the aircraft's hardened cockpit doors, why we have inflight security officers and cabin crew trained to handle suspect behaviour. It is why we treat safety briefs seriously and it would have been a harrowing and worrying time for the people on board.

Nicole Chvastek: So are you confident that 90 minutes was an adequate and a reasonable period of time for those passengers to have to wait for police to come and take control of the aircraft?

Darren Chester: Well, I am not going to second guess the police, and I understand that the Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton has had a bit to say today about the uncertainty which surrounded the situation. Admittedly, you had people on the ground and they had access to mobile phones and may have been sending messages and there may have been conflicting accounts coming to police at the time, and there was concern about whether there was a possibility of a co-offender or that type of thing, whether there may have been other devices which were potentially more harmful involved.

So, there was uncertainty in the dark. An aircraft landed at Tullamarine, which was secured in an area where it couldn't cause any damage to other people at the airport at that time of night. So it was a very complex situation, there will be a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make sure the appropriate security personnel and Victoria Police were in the right place and I am not going to second guess the police in what they did and decisions they made; I will wait to see their assessment of the whole operation, just as I will be expecting my own staff involved in transport security to report back to me on how things went from our perspective as the Federal Government, and if there are things we can do better, we will learn from that and we will implement changes in the future.

But again, Nicole, I am not going to downplay this, this would have been a pretty harrowing thing for everyone on board and I am just so thankful that all the passengers and crew are okay and the situation was resolved in a reasonably peaceful manner.

Nicole Chvastek: I guess this is front of mind because we have all been digesting the results of the Lindt Café Siege and this repeating claim that, had police gone in ten minutes earlier, then a life would have been saved. So bringing these things to an end seems to be something which is incredibly important while balancing the need to protect life.

Darren Chester: Absolutely, Nicole. I think it was our former Prime Minister John Howard who said at one stage: we need to be alert but not alarmed. And, you know, we are all a bit toey, we are all a bit worried about these things and for good cause, there have been some horrible incidents around the world in even the last ten days, with explosive devices going off in various locations which have caused massive damage and innocent people being killed. So security personnel are on edge, I know my staff here are constantly trying to assess the security environment, saying, are there more things we should be doing to protect the security of the public, are there other changes we need to make to our security protocols to make it safer for people so…

Nicole Chvastek: And are there?

Darren Chester: Well, these are the questions you ask yourself every day and we believe we have got our security settings right. The first reports I received back this morning, very early this morning, was that the security scanning equipment was all operational and worked appropriately. We have a system in Australian where 100 per cent of travellers and 100 per cent of their baggage is screened before boarding a flight and that was in place, and that is to ensure that prohibited items and weapons are not taken on board aircraft. But the item we are talking about, that the alleged offender said was an explosive device, turned out to be a music speaker, so it was not a prohibited item by any description.

But that does not make it any better for the people on board, I understand that they would have been very worried and very concerned when those claims were being made in the early hours of the morning.

Nicole Chvastek: This is potentially a life-changing situation for the people who were on that flight, who had to sit there for 90 minutes not knowing if they were going to live or die. What sort of assistance will the Commonwealth or the State be providing to them?

Darren Chester: I am not sure what support is available. I think some of the people on board would be foreign nationals, so they will probably return to their home countries as soon as they can; I am not sure what is available to them in that regard. I would suggest, though, that anyone who was on board and is suffering as a result, that there are support services in terms of other various agencies with helplines that they could call and I am sure that the Victoria Police would be able to help out as well, but I'm not sure of actual numbers they could call in terms of that.

But you have touched on a very important point, these things don't have to end badly in the terms of, it did not need to be anyone injured for it to not be a traumatic experience. No one is underestimating the seriousness of this and in many ways I think our security agencies certainly had a very good workout last night in terms of seeing how the Federal organisations and the state organisations work together. They will be debriefing and working their way through this, reviewing it, and deciding where there's more that they could do in the future or things we could do better.

Nicole Chvastek: Had there not been one offender, had there been multiple offenders that the passengers had not been able to overpower; that person would have been in control of that aircraft for 90 minutes before the police entered. That is a hell of a lot of time to take lives.

Darren Chester: Well, the aircraft would have been on the ground, Nicole. We are getting into a whole hypothetical situation because the person involved didn't have a prohibited item at all

Nicole Chvastek: But nobody knew that.

Darren Chester: Well, you are saying to me if the person was going to take lives, we are not very much in a hypothetical situation now. The person acted in a way that drew attention to himself and passengers and crew subdued him, and claims were made about a device which turned out not to be a prohibited item at all. So, I do not know that there is much to be gained by me commenting on what could have happened or would have happened if there were more people involved. The fact is everything that was on that plane had been scanned in accordance with our security protocols.

It is a very unfortunate incident, I accept that. But I do not think it is going to be helpful for me just to second guess what might have happened if other factors had been in play.

Nicole Chvastek: Darren Chester, thank you so much for your time, as always.

Darren Chester: I appreciate your time as well.