29 September 2023
SUBJECTS: MRH-90 fleet update; Disability Royal Commission report; AFL Grand Final.
MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: The government has confirmed this morning the ADF's Taipan helicopter fleet is now permanently grounded. The aircraft were due to be withdrawn from service in December 2024, but Defence Minister Richard Marles has confirmed they will not return to flying between now and then. And the Minister joins us now. Richard Marles, very good morning to you.
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Morning, Michael. How are you?
ROWLAND: Okay. Was the crash, the fatal crash of that Taipan hand in waters off Hamilton Island, killing four soldiers in July, the final straw?
MARLES: Well, what we said at the time was that we obviously had no choice but to not fly the aircraft, to ground them at the time, until we had done a full investigation, that we understood exactly what had happened and that if there was any rectification that needed to occur, that we'd made those rectifications. What's now clear is that these investigations, there are four of them, will take some time. One of them has already been said that will take a year. And that's before we talk about dealing with the recommendations that come from those recommendations and any steps which need to be taken as a result. And given we were due to retire these aircraft at the end of next year anyway, there really is now no world in which we would be flying the Taipans again. And given that, we need to be getting the new capability, the Black Hawks, into operation as quickly as possible and that has to be our focus. So, that's the heart of why we're making the decision that we're making today.
ROWLAND: The Taipans have been involved in so many incidents and crashes over the years, not just here, but overseas. Was it a mistake for Australia to buy them in the first place?
MARLES: Well, I mean, this is a decision that was taken a long time ago and we can rake over all of that. And to be clear, in the investigations that are underway, they really do look at not just the specific incident, but the systems which underpin it. I mean, the Taipans, I should say, over a period of time, have provided service for our country and great service for our country. They are a highly capable platform. They are able to operate in ways that other platforms, including the Black Hawk, can't. But at the end of the day, we made the decision to move to Black Hawks, a decision that had been made before this tragedy occurred because we needed to get more flying hours out of the platform. And that's at the heart of why we had decided to move to Black Hawks anyway. That was a decision which was going to be implemented really over the course of this period that we're in now with the view of the Black Hawks being ready at the end of next year and the Taipans coming out of service. Now we just need to move that forward as fast as we can.
ROWLAND: How many Taipans are we talking about here?
MARLES: Well, that's a good question as well. I mean, we've operated 47 over the life of the Taipans, but we were in the process of retiring them already. Had this tragedy not occurred, there would have been 19 in operation now and that would have gone down to 16 from the 1st of January. And in the process, we would be standing up Black Hawks. We've got three Black Hawks in our possession right now, the first of those had their first flight last week. So, what we're really doing now is trying to speed up the process of getting the Black Hawks into service. That's both about getting the airframes here as quickly as we can, but a lot of it's actually to do with making sure that the aircrews who had been flying the Taipans get hours up in training so that they can be certified on the Black Hawks as quickly as possible. In that, we are talking with our international partners, particularly the United States, to try and get as much time as possible for those aircrew to do that more quickly. And we've been very grateful for the assistance that's been provided to us by our international partners and particularly the United States.
ROWLAND: Indeed. So, the plan was to gradually move down to 16 Taipans. You've got three Black Hawks already. When the Taipans go, should Australians be worried about a capability gap in our Defence aviation system?
MARLES: Look, there is a challenge here and there's no gilding the lily on that. And that was really apparent from the moment that we'd made the decision to not fly the Taipans in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy. So, since then we've been working really hard to look at how we can deal with capability issues over the course of really the next eight – or less than that now, the next 15 months. And we do think that by making this decision, we are able to move faster down the track of getting Black Hawks into operation quicker. That is actually at the heart of the decision that we're making today. But there will be capability challenges that we face over the course of this next year and a bit.
ROWLAND: Okay, a couple of other issues before we go. As you know, the Disability Royal Commission report will be released by the Government at some stage later today. The Chief Commissioner, Ronald Sackville, has called for an urgent and comprehensive response from all governments. Will the Albanese Government's response be urgent and comprehensive?
MARLES: Well, I mean, this is a really important report which is coming down and both Minister Shorten and Minister Rishworth will be speaking later today in terms of the Government's response. Obviously we will be looking at this thoroughly and making sure that our response is as prompt as it can be, but that it's as thorough as it can be, because we need to be acting on this in the most significant way we can.
ROWLAND: Okay, finally, we're heading into grand final weekend. I know you're a dedicated Cats fan, Richard Marles, and I'm a dedicated Western Bulldogs fan. I'm swallowing heavily and, as a Victorian, backing Collingwood. Who are you behind tomorrow?
MARLES: Well, that surprises me Michael, because having supported this game for a long time, both you and I know that supporting Collingwood is, in essence, a character flaw. And so I will be supporting Brisbane tomorrow, which I think is really the only rational decision anyone can possibly make.
ROWLAND: Bold call by a Victorian Minister there, Richard Marles.
MARLES: This is the spirit of Fitzroy.
ROWLAND: Yeah, okay. That's right. That's true. That's your saving grace. Richard Marles, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.
MARLES: Thanks Michael.
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