Transcript of Joint Press Conference: Blue Room, Parliament House, Canberra

Interview

WTC010/2014

05 May 2014

Tripartite Meeting Regarding MH370

Warren Truss: I welcome you to this conference following the tripartite meeting we just held to discuss the future arrangements for the search for MH370. Can I particularly welcome Mr Hishammuddin, the Defence Minister for Malaysia and Acting Minister for Transport, a face that has come very familiar to Australian television viewers because of his regular press conferences on this issue in Kuala Lumpur, and also Mr Yang for, the Minister for Transport from the People's Republic of China. At our meeting—and I also have, of course, Angus Houston—well known as the coordinator from our Joint Coordinating Committee. There have also been five vice ministers participating in this meeting, along with a number of officials as we've sought to address the future issues associated with this search.

As you would all know, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a Boeing 777, disappeared on 8 March 2014 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. There were 239 people on board. The search for this aircraft has been one of the most difficult ever undertaken anywhere in the world, in a very remote location, in difficult conditions. The international efforts of so many countries have put together a massive search effort.

Malaysia, as the flag of the lost aircraft, is the country with the lead investigative responsibility and the international accident crash investigation is based in Kuala Lumpur. However, the aircraft is thought to have been lost in Australia's air and se… our search and rescue zone, and so we have been leading in the search operation. Particularly for the last 41 of the 53 days since the MH370 went missing, Australia has had this responsibility to lead the global effort.

In this period, 4,638,670 square kilometres of ocean have been searched. It has been a giant effort. Three hundred and thirty-four search flights have been conducted and a total of 3137 hours have been spent in the air. There have been 10 civilian aircraft and 19 military aircraft, and 14 ships engaged in this search over a long period of time.

Unfortunately, all of that effort has found nothing. We've been confident on the basis of the information provided that the search area was the right one, but in reali… in practice, that confidence has not been converted into us discovering any trace of the aircraft. Ministers at our meeting today were very appreciative of the efforts of so many nations around the globe who've assisted in the search. We have committed ourselves to an ongoing, continuous effort, but the operation must now meet—enter a new phase, and will be focused on intensifying the ocean floor search over a much larger area.

A number of phases will process concurrently as we move into this new stage. Meetings will commence on Wednesday in Canberra with international experts to analyse all the data and the information that has been collected so far that is likely to help us identify the path of MH370, together with all of the data that has been accumulated during the search itself. Other meetings will look at the same time as to what assets might be required and available for the next stage of the search.

One of the key elements of the next stage will be to undertake more detailed oceanographic mapping of the search area. Much of this area has never been mapped, and so it will require a significant effort for us to understand the ocean floor in that area. It is expected that [indistinct] metric capability will be obtained to start surveying this prospective search area over the next four to six weeks. We know that the water is very deep and for the next stage involving sonar and other autonomous vehicles, potentially at very great depths, we need to have an understanding of the ocean floor to be able to undertake that kind of search effectively and safely.

The key capabilities that are going to be needed for the next stage of the search of the sea floor or for a debris field associated with the wreckage of MH370 is a mix of towed side scan or synthetic aperture sonar, and of course capable autonomous underwater vehicles. Work is under way to tender for this equipment and the aim is to have the assets in the water in the agreed search area as soon as possible.

Now, when we're preparing for the new phase, a dedicated team of vessels from Australia, Malaysia and China will continue maritime operations to maintain continuity and momentum, and Australian Air Force AP-3 Orion will also be available to follow up any leads. The Ocean Shield has come to port for pre-provisioning, and for servicing and software upgrades for the Bluefin-21 autonomous vehicle. The US Navy has chartered the Bluefin for a further month, so Ocean Shield will return to the search area and search a wider area to further extend the search activities. The Bluefin-21 has already covered 400 square kilometres, and this new phase of the search will take it out a little wider.

But the key element of the next stage will involve deep ocean search with specialist equipment and there will be meetings starting this week involving our international partners to look at where this equipment might be available and how it can be included in the search effort. It's possible that some of it may be owned by Navies or governments around the world, but it's likely that the majority will have to be provided from the private sector, and we're looking at calling tenders for a single operator to maintain and lead in the new elements of this search.

Finally, can I mention that it's our intention to move the Joint Agency Coordinating Centre from Perth to Canberra. This is to bring the centre closer to the high-level representatives of Malaysia and China and other country whose are interested in the search. However, the base of the operations will obviously still be from Perth, and the centre would be moved back to Perth in the event of there being some event which may require it to be reactivated in Perth.

Can I thank the West Australian Government for their hospitality—for this centre, for making the centre available, and then for providing the support that has been necessary so that we've been able to run a search involving many countries in the most efficient way possible.

Now I might ask perhaps my colleague, Hishammuddin, who might like to say a couple of words, and then we'll take questions, and also Mr Yang.

Hishammuddin Hussein: Thank you, Deputy Prime Minister. I would just like to concur and confirm the trilateral discussions this morning went very well and it is very important that we have this meeting at a very important juncture in our search for MH370. The fact that Australia, Malaysia, and China have got together with a very strong delegation from the three nations to discuss and chart the way forward is testimony of the commitment in what we have promised to the families especially, that the search will go on.

I take this opportunity to thank, on behalf of the Malaysian Government and the Malaysian people and the passengers of MH370, the Australian authorities, especially Angus Houston specifically, in all the efforts that Australia has shown in conducting the search, and I would also like to take the opportunity to thank China especially in our dealings and engagements with the families in Beijing.

As we move on to the new phase, what was discussed this morning is very structured, it is very focused, and I believe that we are on the right track. The meetings, as Deputy Prime Minister indicated just now, where there is a sense of urgency. The first meeting is due on Wednesday and the way forward between the three nations, especially, gives an opportunity for other nations, institutes , research institutes and third parties to come on board this unprecedented search.

So what we have decided today I believe is very, very important because we are now moving to a new phase, but it also gives an opportunity of those who are not involved with us at the early phase of the search and rescue to come on board on a very specific, particular exercise which needs to be done, and here, again, I take the opportunity to thank the Australian authorities, Australian leadership and the Deputy Prime Minister chairing the meeting today, and Minister Yang from China because I believe that for the families especially, the search goes on.

Thank you.

Yang Chuantang: [From translation] Friends from the media, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. Designated by the Chinese Government, I help the Chinese delegation to Canberra to participate in this tripartite ministerial meeting on the search of Malaysia flight MH370. China highly appreciates that the Australian Government hosted this meeting and that the Malaysia Government has made great efforts to promote the convening of this meeting. At the same time, I like to express our sincere gratitude to the international community for the cooperation in and the persistent efforts rendered to the search operation.

In the 55-day search from 8 March to 30 April, Chinese Government has deployed 18 vessels, eight ship-borne helicopters, five fixed-wings mobilised, 68 passing by Chinese-flagged merchant vessels, 20 fishing boats, and used 21 satellites to search a total area of 1.4 million square kilometres. During the whole course of the search, the Chinese Government has been sticking to the principles of people orientation, positive participation, and proactive contribution, and maintaining very good collaboration and cooperation with all parties involved, which laid down a solid foundation for continuing the full ops search activities.

For the subsurface search in the new phase, we will continue to search in accordance with the consensus reached at this meeting, and assure that the search will not be interrupted, not be suspended, not be given up, and not be slacked, and with all these principles, China will further the proactive cooperation and participate in the search in the new phase.

We know very clearly the area of the follow up search area will be more broader and tougher tasks. The Chinese Government will, as we always did, try its utmost and make every possible effort to participate in the search.

It is my firm belief that so long as we three countries closely collaborate with each other, materialise the joint communique seriously, could we, with our pragmatic work, respond to the great expectations of the international community, provide closure to the families of the people on board, and discharge our duties and responsibilities.

Thank you.

Warren Truss: Now, are there any questions?

Question: Minister, could I ask a question? What is the [indistinct]? The early days of the search were somewhat chaotic and we had—there were reports that the plane had gone north and then it went south and it looked like there wasn't a proper sharing of information. Are you confident that Malaysia is receiving proper intelligence help from countries including China, United States, Australia and Britain and secondly, do you think that the long lasting legacy of this plane will be—there will be communications devices that cannot be turned off under any circumstances?

Hishammuddin Hussein: I will answer the second question first, and that's for the aviation industry to answer. And basically in Kuala Lumpur right now we've got the experts not only on the defence but under civil aviation. You've got NTSB, you've got the British experts, even the Chinese experts, CAAC, Boeing, you've got Rolls Royce, and the fact that these have all been put into a panel of experts to look and investigate what's happened from the first day, I think this is something that the whole world would want to know, especially those involved in the industry.

Whether you're talking about the transponder being able to be disabled or not, or whether you're talking about tracking devices, I think not only airlines but also aeroplane manufacturers would be most interested. This is an unprecedented case and the fact that we have got all these experts together underscores the point that this may well change the landscape and how things will be done in the future. So basically the fact that all the experts are in town in Kuala Lumpur, there have been structures set up, and today, again, you see a trilateral agreement between three countries as we move onto the next phase, which becomes even more complex, is how we have proceeded from the beginning.

And as my Prime Minister said, [indistinct] Najib said earlier, there are things that Malaysia did well and are things that we can do better. And like I said, rather than debating it in the media, all the documents and all the reports that have been filed earlier have been released and the panel of inquiry will go through this and then we will decide whether there is four-hour delay, whether that four hours is reasonable. If you alluding to that, sir.

So basically what I think is more important for us right now is that we have been very consistent in our approach. Any leads that exist might have to be corroborated, they have to be verified. Any decisions that are made, it is done with advice from the experts. And I believe that when the inquiry and the panels of the experts—they are international experts—sit down and look at how we have done this search from the beginning—and as we go onto the new phase, we will maintain that and learn for what we have done in the past—I believe it is not an easy thing to actually benchmark and find out whether we've done it right or wrong, but let the experts decide whether we have or not.

Question: Mr Truss, the meeting on Wednesday, what are your expectations out of that and can you flesh out exactly what they are looking at and what decisions will be made out of that?

Warren Truss: Well, it will be something of an audit of the information that has been collected since-the-beginning of the search. It'll also look again at the satellite information that has been accumulated so that we can make sure that it's been accurately interpreted, whether there is… whether it should lead to some further search for information, and look generally at the way in which we've been able to extrapolate from the information—the hard information that's been received to actually identifying a search area.

Now, the second part of the meetings which begin in the middle of the week will involve looking at what will be required by way of assets for the next part of the investigation, and the search. We know that we will need more sophisticated equipment, equipment with different capabilities, able to operate at greater depths than the Bluefin-21, and also with additional capabilities, for instance, to recover any debris that might be on the floor of the ocean or whatever the next stage may bring.

So, all of that is probably not going to be in one machine. There will need to be a number of submersible pieces of equipment. Probably use towed sonar because that enables the provision of real-time information to the shore and obviously, therefore, leads to a quicker response to anything that might be of particular interest. So it is a matter of searching around as to what's available.

I should emphasise that there are only a handful of relevant pieces of machinery in the world, and so we want to look at all of that. But in addition, we know that some countries have oceanographic vessels that are capable of mapping the sea at that depth, and hopefully we will be able to harness some of that equipment to get on with that job. We have no vessel in the Australian Navy that is able to map the ocean at that depth, and so we will need some support and assistance in that regard.

Question: Is it an Australian tender process or is it an international—what are the rules for the tender?

Warren Truss: Well, those are the sorts of things—[coughs] excuse me. Those are sorts of things that will be talked about from Wednesday onwards as well.

Question: There is a report about the doubt—the authenticity of the recording you released between the tower and the MH370. Can you—I mean, some say, some acoustic experts say this recording was kind of fabricated, and can you confirm that?

Hishammuddin Hussein: That is why I repeated earlier, any information, documents, audio recordings released at the request of the public or the media will all be open to all sorts of speculation. So what we should be looking forward is that any documents that we want—we will share with the public—let it be released by this team of experts. So this team of experts has been established, but as regards to that particular audio, I have not got any information that it has been tampered with.

Warren Truss: Could I ask to, perhaps, give the opportunity to one of the Chinese media to ask a question?

Question: Okay. After 10 days, we get very useful information from the device Bluefin-21. So I just wondering, why are we very confidence in the [indistinct] space—the searching area, as also in the Australian Ocean? So why do—do you have any more evidence to be convinced about that work?

Angus Houston: All I will say is that in terms of all of the work that's been done thus far, I still put the most weight on the work that the expert team in Kuala Lumpur has done, in terms of the satellite analysis, and also some of the aircraft simulation work that has also been done by them, I still think that that is the best information we have. And as the ministers have indicated to you, we have got to this stage of the process where it's very sensible to go back and have a look at all of the data that has been gathered, all the analysis that has been done, and make sure that there is no flaws in that; the assumptions are right, the analysis is right, and the deductions and conclusions are right.

Question: Mr Truss, at the last press conference, the way that the cost of the search would be broken up was discussed comprehensively. We were told the search would probably cost something like $60 million and it would probably—the goal was to share it amongst the countries involved. Has any formal decision been reached on that, on either the likely cost and on the way it will be shared out? And could somebody tell us, please, what's the likely depth of the ocean in the new search area?

Warren Truss: The estimate of $60 million cost is Australia's estimate of what we think this next phase will cost, and we will need to discuss with Malaysia and with China and with other parties who have an interest in this how that or whatever other costs there might be might be shared.

The question about the depth of the ocean, I don't know that anyone knows for sure because it has never been mapped.

Hishammuddin Hussein: I just want to say that before this new phase, the search and all of our friends that have assisted us in the search have not raised any issue regarding cost, but to be fair to the Australians who have been so committed, and also with our colleagues from China, I think this meeting today, like I said earlier, makes it a good platform for others to come and participate. So that, I think, is something very, very positive, and is something that doesn't come across enough, because the support that we receive in the early part of the search, without talking about dollars and cents, is something that I feel can also continue as we move forward.

But Malaysia felt that it is timely now to sit with Australia and China, decided to be with us today on a trilateral meeting to discuss that particular point, and I believe what costs will be incurred will depend very much on the assets available to the governments, what is available commercially to identify the areas that needs to be searched, how it is going to be searched and this where experts will have to advise us and the meeting starts on Wednesday.

Question: Just further to that question, can I ask you collectively is there any expectation that, say, Boeing and Rolls-Royce might contribute to the search? And can I ask you whether there's any timeframe coming from Wednesday as to when civil contractors, or whoever, may actually be in the water and beginning a search, is there a target of some sort?

Warren Truss: Yes, there is. Up 'til now, all countries have borne their own costs and clearly assets that have been provided by countries from around the world have made a big contribution to this search, and there's also been useful information clearly provided by people like Boeing and Rolls-Royce. They also have a vested interested in understanding what happened on MH370 so they can be confident about the quality of their product or take remedial action if there was some part of the aircraft that contributed to this accident.

So I think we will be looking for increasing involvement from the manufacturers and their host countries. I might add the French have also provided support because they've made, I think, quite a bit of the avionics on the aircraft. So there has been no lack of willingness. Whenever we've asked, people have invariably come forward and in addition to that, have in many instances offered to Malaysia and to Australia additional help if it can be of value.

Question: [From translation] My question is what China will do in the transitional period as well is in the new phase of the search?

Yang Chuantang: [From translation] Thank you for your question. Since the disappearance of Malaysia flight 370 on 8 March, the Chinese Government has attached a special importance to this issue and collaborated with all the parties involved, including Malaysia and Australia, completed successfully—completed the tasks in the first phase.

On 28April, Prime Minister Abbott announced that the search will enter a new phase. That
is transition from the large-scale water phase surface and aerial visual search to subsurface search. So no matter in past or for the time being or even in the future, China will continue to proactively participate in this work and make due contribution in relation to expertise, assets and finance.

Actually for the transitional period as well as the new phase, we will focus on the four lines of work. The first is for the implementation of the search plan for the transitional period. The Chinese Government will deploy three vessels to participate in. Secondly, we positively support to select a company or commercial organisation with sophisticated technologies, assets and the capabilities in a commercial way to organise the follow-up search in the new phase.

Thirdly, China will participate in the follow-up search in various means very actively and in light of the development of the follow-up search, China will organise companies or agencies which has the capabilities in this regard to actively participate in the work. Fourthly, we will continue to deploy our experts to participate in the identification and verification of the plan for the follow-up search, as well as the investigation of the accident. Thank you.

Question: [Indistinct] whether anyone's ever considered offering a reward or a bounty to try and find it, to try and inspire some sort of commercial operators to find the wreckage?

Hishammuddin Hussein: I don't think we need to do that because even the commercial operators have all come forward. I think the whole tragedy has caught the imagination of so many. I have no problems getting even the commercial operators to come forward and any commercial operator that actually finds the MH370, I don't think there is a reward big enough for us to offer because that would make them immediately the most famous company out there.

Question: Of all the many, many pictures that were taken of so-called debris fields and wreckage and so on, do you concede that every single photograph taken by satellite and so on was a false lead?

Hishammuddin Hussein: They have been false and we've actually said it, and going through from the South China Sea to the Straits of Malacca, up to the Andaman Sea, right down to the northern and southern corridor, right down to the southern corridor, and now to where we are today, there have been so many leads from life rafts to life vests, to oil slicks, to landings [indistinct], to fireballs up oil rigs, and satellite images that came up in the South China Sea alone, and we did not—we refrained from speculating on it. We verified it, we corroborated it, and we announced that they were negative, and now we have other leads that have come out, Bay of Bengal and whatnot.

Question: Given your answer, do you find it still curious, though, that it was on the basis of photographic evidence that our Prime Minister got into parliament and said that the best lead they had was that it [indistinct]…

Hishammuddin Hussein: [Interrupts] I don't think that would be the case. I mean, I cannot speak for your Prime Minister. But we have been in constant discussion both with the JACC and our Prime Ministers had been talking very closely together. It's not just based on images of satellite images, it is based on expert advice and movement and basically where we were looking at were ping signals that came out and those were the best lead. Why this is unprecedented compared to other plane crashes is that we've got very little to work on, and if that very little information that we have to work on is what we have, this is what we will do and this is what were going to do right now.

Warren Truss: I think, just to add briefly to that, the Australian Prime Minister's commentary was not really based on photographs as much as satellite data which pointed to the view which is still regarded as the best lead that the aircraft had turned south and was in Australia's search and rescue area. There has been debris recovered from some of those photographs and always it's proved to be negative, and I guess the most recent flutter of excitement was a piece of flotsam or wreckage that came ashore on the beaches on the southern tip of south west Western Australia, and again it was able to be identified and positively ruled out as having any connection with the aircraft.

So, it is disappointing. It is disappointing that we've had no debris that has led us to this wreckage. It's also interesting to note that the search in the area we have concentrated on began quite a number of days after the aircraft had disappeared. In the case of the Air France crash, which is about the only parallel example in modern times, their last debris was found before—in a lesser number of days than we began our search, so the likelihood that if there was debris floating, it had drifted the bottom of the ocean before we even began our search.

Question: Considering it then took close to two years before the black boxes were located in the Air France case, does it logically follow then that it could be substantially longer than that before we actually find the MH370?

Warren Truss: Any commentary about when we're likely to find this aircraft has to be just that—commentary. We obviously have no idea when it's likely to be found, we just always hope it's tomorrow. But so far our very, very best leads, days when we were quite confident that this was going to be the day, have all proved fruitless, and so I think it would be unduly optimistic to name a day or a time.

We can learn some things from the Air France experience. There were some quite long gaps in their search and we don't want that to happen in this instance, and that's why we're starting work this week on actually putting together the next stages of the search. Somebody asked earlier about how long we thought we would have—this process would take. Well, we are optimistic that we can do most of this in the space of one to two months and so we'll have actually more hardware actually in the water, different hardware in the water within a couple of months.

But in the interim, we'll still interest the Bluefin-21 working and there will be the standby equipment will be going to work on the oceanographic work that needs to be done, so there'll be no long interruptions in this search.

Hishammuddin Hussein: Just on the Air France, I'd just like to mention that Jean-Paul Troadec, who headed the French investigation team, is with us. He's advising us and he has actually indicated there were things that they did very well and there were things that they could have done better. So basically we've got all the experts, and specific to your question with regards to the Air France, we've got the man himself advising us.

Question: Just on the panel of experts who will conduct the information audit, can you say who those experts are?

Angus Houston: Well, I'd like to get back to you on that because, as you know, the panel of experts is a who's who of expertise around the aviation investigation world, and I understand that they will be there, but they will also be assisted by some external people, and I will come back to you on that later.

Question: Air Marshal, can you say whether this new phase will involve a reduction in the number of personnel involved in this search compared to what we've had up until this point?

Angus Houston: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there was hundreds and hundreds of people out there on the aircraft and the ships, and we're now moving into a transition phase where the number of people involved is much less, and, of course, further on, when we get into the deep water phase, there'll be even less because it's a very precise business and, as has been indicated by the Deputy Prime Minister, you can count on one hand the number of systems that are available to do this work, when you talk about towed sonar devices. Thank you.

Question: In the early days of the search, there were suggestions that the aircraft had tried to dodge radar and various other things, claims were made based on an early analysis of radar tracks. You have done some initial reviewing of all of the data. Have you come to any conclusion whether the aircraft might have been under command of some sort when it was flying, or whether there might have been an accident on board or whether there was some level of human intervention?

Hishammuddin Hussein: I think the chief of police had made it very clear that we are looking at all possibilities and they're focusing on four areas; terrorism, hijacking, personal situations, and probably psychological. So I don't think the police working with the intelligence agencies, whether it is the FBI and now we're talking about international satellite information, the CIA with the Chinese intelligence, they've been on board from the beginning and I think all those four possibilities have not been ruled out.

Warren Truss: Okay. Well, thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for my ministers, colleagues from China and from Malaysia for this meeting today and for our ongoing cooperation.

Hishammuddin Hussein: Thank you so much, Deputy Prime Minister.