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Joint Agency Coordination Centre

Transcript of Press Conference, 31 March 2014

Malaysia Airline Flight MH370—Tony Abbott, Prime Minister at RAAF Pearce Base.

Interviewees: Tony Abbott, Prime Minister; Angus Houston, Retired Air Chief Marshall; Warren Truss, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Infrastructure; David Johnston, Minister for Defence

Tony Abbott: It's good to be here at RAAF base Pearce to say thank you to all of the personnel involved in the search for ill-fated flight MH370.

At the moment we have some 550 personnel on this base involved in the search from Australia, from New Zealand, from the United States, from Malaysia, from China, from Japan and from Korea. I want to thank all of the countries involved in this search. I want to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the Malaysian Air Force because the Malaysian Air Force is not just here right now but it's been in the air searching for three weeks now and it really has been an extraordinary effort by the aviators from Malaysia to come down here over the last few days after all the efforts they've put in earlier in this search.

It's been tremendous to see the international cooperation here. We have regular military cooperation with the United States, with New Zealand and with Malaysia, but to see also the cooperation with us from China, from Japan and from Korea is really heartening and it demonstrates that in a humanitarian cause, the nations of this region can come together to work for the betterment of humanity, can work to try to resolve this extraordinary mystery, can work to try to bring peace and closure to the families of the 239 people on board that ill-fated aircraft.

So it is an honour for me to be here, to be able to say thank you to the extraordinary men and women who are involved in this search. It's also an honour for me to be here with Air Chief Marshal retired Angus Houston who will be helping to cooperate all of our activities, particularly as the search continues to ramp up in the days and weeks ahead. It's good to be here with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport Warren Truss and also with the Minister for Defence Senator David Johnston, because all of their agencies are working together to try to get the best possible outcome. We've got the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, we've got the various Air Investigation Bureau as well Naval personnel, Air Force personnel and Army personnel here in Australia.

So it's good to be here to salute the professionalism of all the personnel involved and to honour the work of all the countries involved in this very important search.

I'm going to ask each of the other gentlemen here just to say a few words and then I'll take some questions. If we could please confine the questions today to questions about the MH370 search, because I'll have an opportunity later today to take questions on other subjects.

Angus.

Angus Houston: Thanks, Prime Minister.

I'm delighted to be appointed to coordinate the efforts on this very important task that we have out in the Southern Ocean. My job will be to head up the joint agency coordination centre. I will be coordinating with my people at the international level, at the national level and, of course, most importantly, with the families and the media. And can I say that my heart goes out to the families who've lost people on this terrible disaster that has befallen Malaysian Airlines.

I will obviously be focused very much on coordination. I'm not here to run the search. I'm not here to do the detailed operational stuff that is being taken care of very professionally by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Defence Force. Can I say that as a former CDF, I'm immensely impressed with what I've heard today, what I've seen today and I'm absolutely delighted that we see the nations of the region coming together to do this very complex search and rescue operation.

Thank you.

Tony Abbott: Thanks, Angus.

Warren.

Warren Truss: Well, I'm pleased again to be back at Pearce just a week after I was here last time and I've noticed the growth in the momentum of the search. Even though this search has now been going for three weeks, more aircraft, more ships are being added each day and the momentum and the determination of all of those involved to follow the leads and to hopefully eventually locate the resting place of MH370 is much appreciated by everyone. The international effort is particularly notable and I commend all of the countries who are involved in making sure that we work constructively together to get the best possible outcome as quickly as possible.

The role of Angus Houston now in coordination and particularly investigation of any of the debris that comes to shore and also to try and work towards finding the cause of this event will be particularly important. I thank the West Australian Government for making available its emergency centre to act as a nerve centre for this operation and to help support the activities that are currently occurring at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in Canberra and also the Australian Transport Safety Bureau who have great skills in investigating aircraft incidents and being able to work towards identifying the cause.

It's a priority for us to try and recover the black box recorder of this aircraft as soon as possible. It is, of course, an Australian invention the ATSB and our safety bureau has a particular skill in being able to interpret that data when it becomes available. So there are lots of challenges ahead, but the key task now is to focus on finding whatever we can so that hopefully the location of this aircraft can be properly identified and we can then proceed to the next stage of the investigation.

Tony Abbott: Johno.

David Johnston: Thanks, Prime Minister.

Ladies and gentlemen, today we'll have more than 100 people in the air over this site from all of the nations that you've heard the Prime Minister mention. We'll have just on 1000 sailors in the area looking for debris. Can I pause to pay tribute to RAAF Base Pearce, its Commanding Officer Dave Turner who has been able to ramp up the provision of food and accommodation for more than 500 people in support of the air operation.

This is a huge task for Australia. It has gone seamlessly. It's a great tribute to the Air Forces of the various nations that are involved. They're often flying three and four consecutive 12 hour missions. They're committed, they're most brave and courageous. I want to thank them and all those who support them to try and solve this mystery. Lastly, can I thank you ladies and gentlemen of the media for the professional way you've gone about the difficult task of conveying information to your various countries.

Thank you so much, we're doing our very best. Bear with us.

Tony Abbott: Okay, do we have any questions?

Question: Prime Minister, you say that momentum in this search is building. Is there a point, though, that things start to be scaled back? If there is, where is that?

Tony Abbott: If nothing of substance is found, obviously such a point is eventually reached, but we are well short of that point and I think we owe it to the grieving families of the 239 people on board, we owe it to the anxious governments of all of the countries who had people on board that aircraft, we owe it in particular to the Malaysians who are our friends and partners in so many regional ways, we owe it to all of them to do whatever we reasonably can to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Question: Prime Minister, I just want to know this time how confident you are what is new search assignment in new search area?

Tony Abbott: Look, this is an extraordinarily difficult exercise. We are searching a vast area of ocean and we are working on quite limited information. Nevertheless, the best brains in the world are applying themselves to this task. All of the technological mastery that we have is being applied and brought to bear here, so if this mystery is solvable, we will solve it. But I don't want to underestimate just how difficult it is.

Question: Prime Minister, how long will it take, the search, if nothing can be found? Do you have a certain time?

Tony Abbott: I'm certainly not putting a time limit on it. I think, as I said, we owe it to the families, we owe it to everyone who travels by air, we owe it to the governments of the countries who had citizens on that aircraft, we owe it to the wider world which has been transfixed by this mystery for three weeks now, we owe it to everyone to do whatever we reasonably can and we can keep searching for quite some time to come and we will keep searching for quite some time to come and as I said, the intensity of our search and the magnitude of our operations is increasing not decreasing.

Question: Prime Minister, no wreckage has been found. Was your Malaysian counterpart, Prime Minister Najib, too hasty in announcing that everyone has died in this incident?

Tony Abbott: No. The accumulation of evidence is that the aircraft has been lost, and it has been lost somewhere in the south of the Indian Ocean. That's the absolute overwhelming weight of evidence and I think that Prime Minister Najib Razak was perfectly entitled to come to that conclusion and I think once that conclusion had been arrived at it was his duty to make that conclusion public.

Question: Prime Minister, do you have good idea to narrow the searching area?

Tony Abbott: We're working on the best available intelligence and on all available leads. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority is an organisation which is extremely skilled in this. We have one of the largest, if not the largest search and rescue zones in the world. For all sorts of reasons we've had plenty of experience trying to locate objects, trying to work out what's happened within our search and rescue zone. We do it all the time. We're as good as anyone in the world at it and if any organisation is capable of coming up with an answer, it's the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Question: Prime Minister, what was the morale of the troops [indistinct]?

Tony Abbott: I think morale is high. They're tired, sure, but this is what they're trained for, this is what they live for and I think they all feel a great weight of responsibility, but also a great sense of professional challenge and purpose as they go about this task.

Question: How closely have you been keeping in touch with the day-to-day operations of this?

Tony Abbott: Obviously as Prime Minister I've got quite a lot on my plate, particularly as the government intensifies its pre-Budget preparations. Nevertheless, I am getting several updates a day on this. My office is in, I would say, at least hourly contact with the people who are coordinating and managing the search, so without saying that I'm as familiar with every element of it as, say, the Minister for Transport or the Minister for Defence, I'm certainly trying to stay on top of it because right now this is a major international incident and Australia has the lead responsibility, if you like, for operations inside our search and rescue zone.

Question: [Indistinct] how many people will be involved [indistinct] experts from other countries, and who will be paying for the cost?

Tony Abbott: Well, at the moment, every country is bearing its own costs and obviously we here in Australia will bear the costs of running the coordination centre, which will have about 20 staff under the direction of retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, so we're bearing the cost and look, it's a cost that we think it's only reasonable that as the country in whose search and rescue zone the aircraft has come down, it's only reasonable that we should bear this cost. It's an act of international citizenship on Australia's part.

At some point there might need to be a reckoning. There might have to be some kind of tallying, but nevertheless we are happy to be as helpful as we can to all of the countries with a stake in this, and let's not forget it's not just Malaysia, there's China obviously which had the largest number of citizens on the aircraft. Then there are the other countries that have a legal involvement in this, the Americans who built the aircraft, the British who built the engines, the French who supplied the avionics. So this is an important international operation.

Paul.

Question: Prime Minister, [indistinct]. Do you feel yourself that this is a little beyond the realm of hypothetical? How do you feel about it?

Tony Abbott: Well, when you are trying to reconstruct what has happened from limited information, as more information comes to light, as more potential becomes apparent, obviously you refine what you're doing. And we've now had three weeks to think about this, we've now had three weeks to scour all of the bits of evidence that are available and this is the best conclusion that we can come up with.

Now until we locate some actual wreckage from the aircraft and then do the regression analysis that might tell us where the aircraft went into the ocean, we'll be operating on guesstimates, but nevertheless this is the best we can do and I want to stress we've got the best people in the world doing this work. We have got extraordinary minds, extraordinary technology involved in trying to come up with the best answers we can.

Question: How do you plan to communicate with the families via the new centre?

Tony Abbott: Well, I might ask Angus to add to that. But look, I've had a number of conversations with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, I've had a conversation with President Xi of China, I've met with the families of two of the Australian couples who were on the aircraft, I have spoken to the family of the two Australian citizens who were based in Beijing, so I've had some contact of my own with the families and obviously Angus's centre will do more in the days and weeks ahead.

Angus Houston: It's very early days for the centre, but I understand some of the families are likely to come to Australia at the invitation of the Prime Minister, and when that happens we'll have a prime coordination role at that time. But in the meantime, I think it's important for me and the people in the centre to ensure that the families are kept fully informed of developments in the ongoing search.

Thanks, Prime Minister.

Question: Can I ask another one to the Air Chief Marshall. Just in terms of the contact that you and your staff have had with those families, what have they conveyed to you about their concerns?

Angus Houston: I only arrived here in West Australia late last night and I'm really still reading in and briefing into the job. When I know a little bit more I'll be delighted to come back to you and, indeed, to the rest of the media through the rest of the week. I'll be available to speak to you and discuss some of these questions that you have.

Thank you.

Question: Air Marshal Houston, where is the centre located?

Angus Houston: The centre—the West Australian Government has very kindly provided facilities in the City of Perth. I understand it is the crisis centre, the West Australian Crisis Centre, and we will be established there with all the equipment necessary to do the very challenging coordination task that the Prime Minister has given us.

Question: [Indistinct]

Tony Abbott: I'm sorry.

Question: I was asking in relation to the missing flight [indistinct]…

Tony Abbott: Yes.

Question: Will Australia deal with it alone or will it do it with—test it with other countries?

Tony Abbott: I'll ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport to add to this, but my understanding is that the responsibility for the search is fundamentally Australia's, given that it's in our search and rescue zone and so initially at least it would be our responsibility. I guess at some point obviously Malaysia assumes a very important responsibility as the nation that owned the aircraft, but we're not quite at that point yet and we're talking to the Malaysian Government about what we can usefully do to assist them and to cooperate with them once that point is reached.

Warren Truss: There is an international convention which most aviation countries are signatory to called the Chicago Convention, which outlines the procedures that occur in circumstances like this. As the Prime Minister has said, that convention gives to us, Australia, as the country responsible for the search and rescue zone, a responsibility to take control of that element of the search and also recovery of any items which can be recovered. Malaysia, as the flag carrier, the aircraft flag carrier has responsibility for the investigation. But the convention, as the Prime Minister mentioned earlier, gives a large number of other countries a right to be involved in that investigation.

Malaysia takes the lead. It's able to ask others to assist it obviously, but the US as the manufacturer of the aircraft, the UK as manufacturer of the engines, France as manufacturer of the avionics and there may be some other countries that fit that category, as well, they have a right to be involved, as do all of the countries that have had citizens who have been lost in this accident.

So in reality there'll be a large number of countries that have a right under the convention to be involved in the investigation and that's why the work of Angus Houston in coordinating a lot of those activities is so important.

Tony Abbott: Okay. Look, I might wrap up by saying that, as many of you would know, in a few days I'll be travelling to North Asia. I'll be in Japan, Korea and China. One of the focuses of this visit will be to say thank you to the governments and people of China, Japan and Korea for the assistance which their service personnel have been giving to Australia in this very important effort.

Again, I want to stress that it is amazing the good that can be done when countries come together in aid of our common humanity and I am very proud of the way Australian personnel have worked so closely together with personnel from China, from Japan and from Korea in this search and I think it reflects so well on all of the countries involved that the work has been carried out with such heart and with such spirit.

Thank you so much.