Transcript: Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly



09 March 2015

Topics: MH370, Budget cuts to legal aid and community aid.

Fran Kelly: This weekend marked the first anniversary of really the most baffling mystery in commercial aviation history: the disappearance of flight MH370 with 239 people on board. Australia is leading the international search team for the missing Boeing jetliner, which is believed to be somewhere within a 60,000 square-kilometre priority zone in the Southern Indian Ocean, 1600 kilometres off WA coast—the WA coast. Overnight an interim report by Malaysian aviation authorities has offered basically no fresh clues into what's caused the plane to dramatically veer off course during a routine flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss is helping coordinate the search for MH370. Warren Truss, welcome back to Breakfast.

Warren Truss: Good morning.

Fran Kelly: Minister, 12 months on, nothing has been found, not a single piece of wreckage has been found. Are you surprised by that?

Warren Truss: Well I guess I'm disappointed, but there are plausible reasons why that is the case. Firstly, the initial search of the first ten days or so was not in the right area; when information became available that we needed to look in a vastly different part of the ocean, by that time any wreckage that might have been floating on the surface, it would have sunk to the bottom of the sea. And so it's an area where there's limited currents, and for that reason, at that depth, it's unlikely that any kind of debris will come to the surface. It's also possible of course that the aircraft is largely intact, and that would have meant that the weight of the objects would have moved them to the bottom of the sea very quickly. But we don't know all those sorts of things, and unless we find the aircraft I suppose some of those things will be a permanent mystery.

Fran Kelly: And I guess it's still- really, we can't be certain we're hunting in the right place, searching in the right place.

Warren Truss: Well we're certainly using the best scientists, the best information, there's been an international panel that's gone over the evidence time and time again. Everything supports the area that we're searching in. But the total area that's been identified by that group is over a million square kilometres. We've narrowed it down to the most prospective 60,000 to begin the search. The northern part of that initially defined area we've tended now to discount, and we're concentrating on the southern area, but nonetheless there's still a large area, potentially, where the airline could have come to grief in the water on the basis of the information that we have.

Fran Kelly: So where it is one question. Why it might be there is the other. There are very many theories, but we got this report from the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation on the weekend, basically found no indications of anything wrong; no evidence of behavioural change in the pilots and the crew; no problems with the plane's airworthiness at all; the weather conditions were good; still no clue as to what happened.

Warren Truss: Well, this particular report is an obligation under the international convention that if nothing has been found within- or no solutions have been found within a year, there must be a statement made of the known facts. So, what's in this report are just the known facts, no speculation, and obviously people have their theories about what might have happened, and we can really only confirm those once we've got some- particularly the recovery of the black box recorders. That kind of information would make a real difference in being able to rule out many of the quite extraordinary ideas and theories that are around. But nonetheless, something very unusual has happened on this aircraft, and it is important for the future of the aviation community and the confidence of people who fly that we do everything we can to know what happened to so we that can endeavour to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Fran Kelly: There are so many, many theories. I was in Malaysia recently and everyone, every taxi driver I had, they wanted to talk about it and they had theories. Most of them seemed to think it was a suicide pact by one of the pilots, that that's the most likely thing. We were speaking to a fellow on the program on Friday who's written a book suggesting this was Russia's revenge for US sanctions against Ukraine, that they'd somehow got this plane and rerouted it to Kazakhstan. There's all these theories around, this report says they haven't seen anything on the CCTV recordings and everything else they've checked to give any qualifying support to any of them. You've looked- you've been looking at this, you have to as part of what you're doing, do you think there's likely any other thing gone on here besides a mechanical error in this plane?

Warren Truss: Well it's hard to explain many of the things that happened on the basis of mechanical error. It's hard to understand how transponders could have been turned off; it's hard to understand why there would have been a dramatic change of course direction if we're just relying on some kind of mechanical fault; if there was some kind of mechanical fault only then also it's surprising that pilots and others did not report that to the air traffic controllers. After all, the aircraft flew for another seven hours after it dramatically changed course. So it is very easy to discount most of those kinds of theories. It's hard to believe there wasn't some kind of human intervention that led to the aircraft changing course. But all of those are just theories until we actually have the flight box recorder; the data information that's there would be critical in helping to ascertain what happened and maybe even why it happened.

Fran Kelly: In terms of human intervention, just to stay with that for one moment longer, as I say, pilot suicide is a very popular theory on the ground in Malaysia and beyond, I'm not sure if that's what you're referring to. But I do note that this report has looked into the backgrounds and behavioural changes, or none, they've found, of the pilots and the crew, but not of the passengers on board. Do you think that work needs to be done?

Warren Truss: Well, when I say human intervention, there were a lot of people on the aircraft, that is for certain. And while the finger is often pointed at the pilot or the co-pilot or those who are in command of the aircraft, there are of course others on the aircraft. But they would have been less able to have intervened. But all of this is simply speculation. That's why the search is so important and that's why we're committed to continuing the search. We're—only a little under half of the designated priority area has so far been searched. We've found nothing, but we hope every morning that this will be the day when the equipment that's in operation in that area actually finds the aircraft and we can have some kind of closure for the people on boar… for the families of the people on board.

Fran Kelly: It's 17 to eight on Breakfast. Our guest is Warren Truss, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development and the Minister basically in charge of this coordinated search for MH370. Minister, there was some disturbing news in this report which was released over the weekend, which is that the battery of the underwater locator beacon had been due to expire more than a year before MH370 took to the skies and disappeared. Is that like… I mean, that's bad safety procedures in the first instance, but is that likely to have hampered the search for the plane and what does that mean about all that information we had about the pings, the locator pings. Does that make that null and void?

Warren Truss: Well I think that information we now know to have been coming from other sources and was not coming from the aircraft. After all, that was at a time when the search was hundreds of kilometres away from where we're actually searching now. So, I think it can be reasonably discounted that those pings at no stage came from the aircraft.

Fran Kelly: And what do you—what was your response to the news that this battery in the locator beacon—the underwater locator be… was due to expire more than a year before the plane took off?

Warren Truss: Well, certainly, it should have been replaced. That's a routine part of maintenance. But it doesn't mean that the battery was flat and not operational and we're still optimistic that there'll be useful material on the black box recorders if we're able to discover them.

Fran Kelly: Is that what that is? Is that battery linked to the black box recorders?

Warren Truss: Well my understanding, from the report, is that it was linked. And should therefore have been—should most certainly have been replaced. But from all the information we have, the black box recorders were operational and so while the battery should have been replaced, it may—must still have had some life in it.

Fran Kelly: Minister, the Australian Government allocated another $90 million for the search in last year's Budget. The Prime Minister told Parliament on Thursday that he couldn't promise the search effort would, quote, go on at this intensity forever. Does the Government—is the Government planning to scale down funding for the search?

Warren Truss: Well, we're only halfway through this element of the search and we have sufficient funds to complete what we've committed to—in other words, searching the whole 60,000 square kilometres. That's been assisted by the fact that the Malaysian Government has matched the funding that we've put in place and some other countries continue to provide information and assistance to the search on their own account. But we'll have to make a decision about whether to extend the contracts for the existing vessels that are searching in the area. We have the best vessels, we've got the best equipment in the world employed in this search and so if it's to continue, we certainly want to make sure that we're able to maintain the contracts with those vessels. So it's likely that officials and ministers will meet over the next few weeks and make a decision about whether to continue the search. Whilst the chosen area was the most prospective and the place where we felt the likelihood was greatest of finding the aircraft, there are other areas within that defined area that are in fact identified as places where the aircraft could have come down and so a wider search is certainly an option.

Fran Kelly: And just finally Minister, a little later in the program we're going to be joined by the Victorian Attorney-General, Martin Pakula. The State and Territories Attorneys-General have sent a letter to George Brandis, the Federal Attorney-General, protesting at the budget cuts to legal aid and community aid. These cuts are going to be felt very hard in regional and rural Australia, especially for those working in the area of family violence. They're warning of catastrophic impact. Are you talking to George Brandis about reversing these cutbacks? Are you worried about the impact that this [indistinct]…

Warren Truss: Well I'm advised that no community legal centre has had any cuts to date…

Fran Kelly: From June 30.

Warren Truss: …to their frontline service. Well what the states are talking about was a decision that was announced in 2013, that we wouldn't fund legal centres directly, but we would instead pay the money through the states. I would have thought the states would be pleased about that, because it's something that they've always been demanding that we should do as a Commonwealth. So I'm confident that priority legal services for people in need will continue to be funded.

Fran Kelly: Warren Truss, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

Warren Truss: You're welcome.

Fran Kelly: Warren Truss is the Deputy Prime Minister.