6PR Mornings with Gary Adshead

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The Hon Matt Keogh MP

Minister for Defence Personnel

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

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Stephanie Mathews on 0407 034 485

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1 August 2023

SUBJECTS: Taipan helicopter crash, Robodebt Royal Commission

GARY ADSHEAD, HOST: The Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel, Matt Keogh, joins us on the line. Thanks for your time, Minister.


GARY ADSHEAD: Clearly the search is still underway. I don't know if you can give us an update as to the search for these four Defence personnel now missing off the coast of Queensland. Have you had any luck with the divers et cetera that you've got out there?

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: The search is still underway for our four missing air crew in the Whitsundays, that is continuing. It's involving divers, it's involving multiple Navy vessels as well as aircraft, as well as the support from the United States and Canada and the civilian authorities in Queensland. We're not in a position to sort of go into details of what that is uncovering, but also it's not very helpful, I think, to speculate about how that will unfold. The key thing is that is a critical line of effort for us. It's a key focus. We want to bring our guys home to their families and, of course, make sure that we're providing those families and the regiment that they're from, 6th Aviation, with all the support that they need at this difficult time as well.

GARY ADSHEAD: What's the status, then, of the Taipan at the moment? I know that Richard Marles, the Defence Minister, has been addressing the issues of previous concerns about safety and that he said, I think it was this morning or overnight, that there had been requests for documents around safety issues with the Taipan and that they would now be released around November. Surely that is much more critical now in terms of that fleet and the concerns about it.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: Well, the most critical thing, of course, is making sure that all of our Defence Force personnel operate in the safest way possible, and we're always committed to that, including if they're operating a helicopter like the MRH-90. And following the incident in March, there was a cessation of the use of that helicopter until we were able to understand what had occurred and there were some mitigations put in place thereafter before we allowed those helicopters to start operating again.

Following this incident, of course, there will be - there already is - an investigation that is ongoing to determine what has occurred. And it will be the learnings from that investigation that will go into understanding what needs to happen to stop the current cessation of the operation of those helicopters. Because safety is always the most important thing here, looking after our people, and we're not going to put them into equipment we think is unsafe. These helicopters were being used because they were safe, they had been checked off, there'd been modifications made, mitigations to ensure that safety after the last incident. We're always looking to learn and in terms of the documents to be provided there's the finalisation of the investigation from that Jervis Bay incident. Once that is finalised, then we'll be able to provide documentation around that and full transparency of what occurred and what was learnt.

GARY ADSHEAD: But there's nothing to indicate to you at this stage in relation to that one in March, whether or not it's pilot or mechanical or software error?

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: Look, it's far too early to make any assessment about what has occurred here, Gary, and I don't think it's very helpful -

GARY ADSHEAD: - in March, not now.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: No, I know, but it's far too early to make any assessment as to what occurred then, as to any relationship it may bear on what has occurred now. And speculation around that is actually really unhelpful, both to the families, but it's also unhelpful for the investigation. We don't want to have the investigation that is now ongoing, that is now commenced, sort of deviated in any one direction or the other. It's important that they do their work independently and without any sense of bias or direction, and so we will let that occur. But continued speculation around what has happened, equally, as I say, is not very helpful for the family or for the regiment.

GARY ADSHEAD: Can you say whether or not the Government has sought a briefing on how quickly the Black Hawks that are coming online, supposedly from next year, because the Taipans phase out how quickly they can be brought now that we seem to have a hole in our helicopter capability at the moment.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: So, the MRH-90 was currently planned to be phased out from the end of next year and the Black Hawks to come online. That's still the current plan as they're a foreign purchase of equipment it's going to take time regardless, because you have to bring in not just the physical equipment, but of course, ensure the training of the air crews to operate that equipment safely, the technicians being available and trained up and ready to operate in a safe manner on new equipment. And that is a process that takes time as well. But we want to understand what's happened here, to know what that means for the operation of the MRH-90 through to the end of next year before we're making other decisions. It is just too early to be making calls on some of these things right now. Our key focus is finding these air crew and being able to bring them home to their families, as well as having this investigation resolved so we know what's happened.

GARY ADSHEAD: Obviously, Defence have to work on scenarios which could unfold. And if that is the grounding of this fleet permanently, then what would we do? I mean, hypothetically, would we have to fill the hole with helicopters from other countries that we can get on loan until the Black Hawks become available? I mean, we'd have to do something, wouldn't we?

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: Well, obviously, Defence has many different capabilities at its disposal across land, sea and air. I'm not going to go into the scenario planning that Defence has available to it on public radio as you might expect, Gary, that's not how we conduct these things. But obviously there is scenario planning that Defence does to ensure that we have the capability that we need at all times.

GARY ADSHEAD: Can I just ask you before I let you go, Minister, and it's not necessarily under your portfolio, but I thought it was interesting whether you saw or have heard the comments of Senator Dean Smith, who was on the ABC's Q&A last night. He was asked directly whether the Liberal Party had a problem until Scott Morrison was prepared to accept responsibility for what happened in terms of the Robodebt scandal. And Dean Smith, a Liberal Senator, said absolutely, the Liberal Party does and it can't move forward until people like Scott Morrison are prepared to take some responsibility off the back of a Royal Commission. It was pretty hard and fast. In fact, the Senator got a round of applause from the audience, which you don't see often with a Liberal Member on Q&A. Can I get your reaction to that, it was quite extraordinary?

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: Well, what we saw yesterday was Scott Morrison again failing to take responsibility for his actions as a Government Minister, just as we've seen before. He's said before he wouldn't hold a hose and it turns out he wouldn't hold a hose when it comes to Robodebt either, even though he was the responsible Minister. And I think what we saw from Dean Smith last night was a statement of the obvious and good on Dean for stating what I think everybody blatantly saw in front of their faces. And the fact that it's a Liberal Senator calling it out is probably the sort of thing they need to do in order to start the rebuild that Senator Smith was talking about.

This is a big problem for Government. That if Ministers don't take responsibility for the things that happen under their watch and that they were responsible for bringing forward to Cabinet and that they had multiple times come before them because of the Opposition raising it, ACOSS raising it, academics raising this problem. It's all set out in extensive detail in the report of the Royal Commission. And then that person still fails to take responsibility for it. Then the public see that and they just think, well, that's just not the sort of party that we could ever put back into Government. And that's a big problem that that sort of leadership is what was occurring, and those people are still in the Parliament for that party and represent that party. So, I can see why Dean's called it out. He's called the spade a shovel and I think that's why he got a good round of applause last night.

GARY ADSHEAD: It seems, I don't know quite extraordinary that the former Prime Minister would refer to a Royal Commission and what the Albanese Government's been doing in relation to Robodebt as a lynch mob, given what happened during the Robodebt scandal and then that people lost their lives or took their lives.

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PERSONNEL: This was a very serious issue. We had the Trade Union Royal Commission at the beginning of the last government that didn't result in any negative findings or charges or anything like that. This was a Royal Commission because we wanted to make sure that something like this never happened again. As the Royal Commission pointed out, people took their own lives over the Robodebt issue and scandal frankly. It was abhorrent what had occurred. We wanted to make sure that we had the lessons learned, opportunity to make sure that wherever the points of failure were, didn't reoccur. And what the report has highlighted is that critical points of failure were in a Minister taking misleading information into Cabinet and multiple Ministers, including Scott Morrison, failing to act when these issues were put in front of them as serious problems.

GARY ADSHEAD: Minister, thanks for speaking with us this morning and of course we wish all those people, and the Defence personnel the best of luck in terms of the search because the families are desperate to get their loved ones back and we'll keep updated as to how that progresses. Thanks for your time.


GARY ADSHEAD: The Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel Matt Keogh.


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