Television Interview, Today Show

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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4 August 2023

SUBJECTS: MRH-90 incident, Voice referendum

SARAH ABO, HOST: Well after a week of searching for our lost soldiers human remains have now been found near the site of the deadly Taipan helicopter crash. The discovery comes as pressure builds on the Government to retire the aircraft early, as the troubled history is thrust into the spotlight. The saga began in 2004 when the Howard Government ordered 12 of the helicopters from France with the purchase of another 34 announced in 2006. Fast forward a few years and they were slowly starting to roll out off the production line. By 2012 we had 16 in service and it didn't take long for the problems to arise. Regular engine failures, computer malfunctions cracked wind screens and so much more. Suddenly a $1 billion project was costing $4 billion. Piles of money spent on trying to make the aircraft safer. At the time a special clause gave the Labor Government a chance to pull out of the contract, despite all the problems, they stuck with it and they put our soldiers inside those troubled aircraft. Since their deployment these Taipans have been involved in several emergency landings. Earlier this year a crew narrowly avoided disaster when they were forced to ditch into the ocean of the NSW coast. And tragically many within the ADF had predicted a fatal incident involving this aircraft. Last week that's exactly what happened.

Defence Minister Richard Marles and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton join us now. Thank you both for your time this morning. Richard, first and foremost our thoughts go out to the families of these soldiers. So tell me this, why were they even allowed to board these troubled aircraft?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well Sarah, I think it's really important that we are careful about the speculation that we engage in right now. The first point to understand that in terms of safety, the helicopters that were flying last Friday night in Exercise Talisman Sabre were all certified to fly. There will be a full investigation, indeed there will be a number of investigations, which go forward in relation to the incident that occurred on Friday night. But they were certified to fly. Now, we can walk down a path of looking at the performance of the Taipans. It is obviously known that we had already made a decision to take the Taipans out of service, and we have been in the process of doing that –

ABO: So why were they in the air? This was an exercise, this wasn't even warfare. This was a military exercise. Why were the soldiers put in that aircraft?

MARLES: Well I think what is important to understand is those helicopters and what the Black Hawks will do in the future provide a really important capability for the Australian Defence Force and in terms of exercises –

ABO: But why were they in the air?

MARLES: If you let me finish Sarah. Exercises are fundamental to making sure that our Defence Force can do what it can do. But I mean, if we are going to walk down that path, they were also in the air during the NSW floods. They were also in the air on nights where they were pulling people off roofs and saving lives at that time. They are the capability that we have right now in terms of moving Defence Force personnel around, working with our Special Forces, and doing a whole lot of disaster recovery which has made a difference.

Now, I can tell you, the issues in relation to the maintenance of the aircraft which is obviously why we have made a decision to replace them. But having the capability available doing what they do is a really important thing for the Army and obviously we now face a capability gap given that we have grounded the MRH-90s until we understand exactly what’s happened and fix it. We have to solve that capability gap because the work that they were doing is really essential for the Australian people. But no helicopter flew without it being certified to fly. And that's an important point to understand.

ABO: Another important point to understand is that a lot of the soldiers knew just how dangerous this was. We heard from some saying the floor panels would buckle under the weight of carrying them. No one wanted to board them. I mean, Peter, you axed the Taipan program as Defence Minister in 2021, you blamed running costs, safety concerns, but by then it was too late, they were already in operation. If you knew they were a dud from the beginning why did you let them proceed?

PETER DUTTON, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Morning, Sarah. I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered, and I think they will be answered in due course.

I made a judgment in relation to the Taipan on the advice that I got, and that's why we placed the order for the Black Hawks. I support the Government's work in going through with that contract. As Richard points out, the movement of the SAS troops into exercises, they can be called on tomorrow or tonight to be deployed to a terrorist incident or try to neutralise a threat to our country. So we will always need that airlift capability. But, to be honest, I think at the moment the families and those diggers who were at 6th Aviation, who are in excruciating pain at the loss of these four loved ones, I think the families and their mates will want questions answered at the appropriate time. But to be honest, I think at the moment, the bodies haven't even been repatriated back to the families. And I think now is a time for reflection to celebrate the lives of these individuals. To be questioning of the circumstances and, as I say all of that will come as part of an inquiry in due course. The good thing now is they’re grounded. I think the questions you are asking are reasonable ones, I just think it is a timing issue. I think at the moment our thoughts and prayers are with the families. Those diggers, they have a brotherly bond if you like, or a sisterly bond. It's hard to know when you haven't worn the uniform of our country the nexus that they have. And I really think the pain they are going through at the moment is something we should be concentrating on, and I know that Richard is, providing support to the families and the members of the ADF.

ABO: And it's because of those four incredible men who lost their lives we are asking those questions. I mean, Richard you were on the record 18 months ago saying they were a dud. Both governments knew they had bought $4 billion dollar lemons, and then you went and put personnel in them. The families want answers because they have lost their loved ones, the ADF in general has lost their brothers here. The whole country has lost diggers here, these people who were supposed to fight for our freedom, for our country, and they just dropped out of the sky, and you are saying this isn't the time to answer questions?

MARLES: Well it is the time to engage in the recovery. There is a time and place for all of this. We made really clear, Sarah, from the get go, that there will be a complete and full investigation, and that we will come to understand what happened. I emphasise that for the families, and with them in mind, idle speculation about what may or may not have happened is obviously harmful. I mean it's obviously harmful, Sarah –

ABO: We’re not speculating, Peter – Richard, pardon me – we’ve heard from families –

MARLES: If you’d just let me finish again Sarah. Sorry, Sarah, if you would just let me finish. Talking about what one soldier may or may not have said is not an investigation. That is speculation. There will be investigations, indeed they are under way as we speak. There has been no hesitation in going down that path and we will come to an answer here. But to suggest that we can just not have the capability on any given day is to not understand what the country faces. As Peter just rightly said, if there is a terrorist incident in the next 24 hours it is these helicopters which need to be brought to bear. And during the NSW floods they were brought to bear and they saved lives during that period of time. Now both Peter and I understand the issues associated with these helicopters, we are transitioning them out and going down the path of having Black Hawks in place. And indeed the first Black Hawks have come to the country. But it's not as though we are able to suspend the need for an airlift capability over a period of time before the Black Hawks are operational. So what we then need to do is work with what we have got –

ABO: You’re absolutely right, Richard.

MARLES: Let me finish. We need to operate with what we've got and make sure that those helicopters are safe to fly. What the families are owed is facts and proper investigations, and not speculation. And that is what we will do. We have made an absolute commitment to do that. We have made a commitment to do that on the basis of transparency. Frankly, Sarah in the circumstances where the wreckage is still on the bottom of the ocean it is completely impossible to understand exactly what happened here.

ABO: No you are absolutely right. And we do need that thorough investigation. The families absolutely deserve answers. I mean, the gap in our capabilities is another issue we now have to face.

Alright, let's move on. We are still several months off casting our vote in the Voice referendum. This is a difficult one for the Yes campaign at the moment, especially Peter Dutton as it seems like you are mounting a scare campaign?

MARLES: Well, I mean we are focused on –

DUTTON: Well, Sarah. Sorry –

MARLES: You go, Peter.

ABO: Richard, I’ll let you go first.

DUTTON: This is a Mexican stand-off.

ABO: Ok Peter, go go.

DUTTON: I think – it’s like an international cross with a delay, I'm sorry. Look, I think Australians have reasonable questions that they want their Prime Minister to answer, he is asking them to vote in a referendum which would be the biggest change to the referendum since Federation. So people want to be properly informed. It seems the Prime Minister has taken a deliberate strategy not to provide that information. Now some of it he may not know because it will be up to the courts. But every Australian wants to see a better outcomes for Indigenous Australians, we want to see kids going to school, housing, jobs etcetera etcetera. But setting up a new body which will have an influence on every area of government policy and consideration is something the Australian public, I don’t think are going to tolerate. Let’s do Constitutional recognition, I think there’d be 80 per cent support for it – the Prime Minister supports it, I support it. I just don't think the country is ready for the Voice question because they don't understand what it is about. And now it turns out that this treaty and the Makarrata elements could last 20-30 years, tens of billions of dollars. Is that going to help people in Alice Springs or Laverton or Tennant Creek? I just don't think it will. So let’s look at the practical support we can provide. And at the moment the PM is not providing any information.

ABO: The PM has invited you to join him at the Garma Festival. Will you commit to going with him?

DUTTON: No, I’m not. I have been up to East Arnhem Land twice in the last six months or so, I’ve been to Laverton and Leonora, Indigenous communities in WA. I’ve been to Alice Springs and Darwin, I have spoken to many Indigenous leaders and I’ve spoken to the organisers of Garma previously –

ABO: That sounds like a hard no then. I'm sure, Richard, the invitation probably remains open, doesn't it?

MARLES: It does.

ABO: OK. Alright, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much, appreciate your insight on both issues, thank you gentlemen.


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