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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29 September 2023

SUBJECTS: MRH-90 fleet update.

KARL STEFANOVIC, HOST: Well, the breaking news, Australia's Taipan helicopters will not return to flying operations before their planned withdrawal date of 2024. This announcement follows a series of major issues with the aircraft. Most recently, four crew members died after a Taipan crashed into the sea near Hamilton Island during military exercises. We remember the pain of that. Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles joins us now. Richard, good morning to you. Thank you for your time. That's the decision this morning?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It is, and it's really the only decision that makes sense. We had made clear that we wouldn't be flying these aircraft again until the investigations were completed, that we understood what had happened and we'd made any rectifications that needed to occur. There are now four investigations on foot already. One of them has made clear that it will take twelve months for them to reach their conclusion, and we were planning to retire the Taipans at the end of next year anyway, and so there is no world in which we would be flying these helicopters again. And given that what we really need to do is to be moving as quickly as we can to have our new capability, the Black Hawks stood up as soon as possible and that's really our focus. So, we're making this decision today. In many ways it was inevitable, but it's an important step to take so that we can get our Black Hawks in the air as quickly as possible.

STEFANOVIC: In the difficult weeks following that awful crash, you were on the record as saying to us that there would be no fingers pointing here at anyone in particular or anything, but it's clear this morning when you made this announcement that you are.

MARLES: Well, we will be doing investigations, and when I say that, both Commonwealth Government agencies and indeed the Queensland Coroner, and all of those investigations will look to understand as completely as possibly exactly what's happened here and what lessons need to be learned –

STEFANOVIC: But you're grounding the fleet, you're absolutely saying they can’t be in the air?

MARLES: Well, the fleet was grounded at the time of the incident and we did that on the very day –

STEFANOVIC: Permanently.

MARLES: We made that decision at the time. And when we made that decision, we made clear that we would not be flying the helicopters again until investigations were complete and that we understood what had happened. That was in a context where –

STEFANOVIC: Richard, sorry –

MARLES: We were planning to retire the helicopters at the end of this year anyway – end of next year anyway I’m sorry. So there’s no world in which we’re flying them again.

STEFANOVIC: What information – but what information do you have now that you didn't have before we sent those four soldiers into the air?

MARLES: Well, the information that we have now is fundamentally the duration of the investigations that are taking place. So, there are four investigations that will take place – sorry, Karl?

STEFANOVIC: What information? We have families desperate for information about what happened to their loved ones. You've said that you won't finger point. They said there were problems with the aircraft, and now you're grounding them. You are saying these aircraft are not safe. Why weren't those decisions made before we sent those four officers into the air?

MARLES: Well Karl, we need to be really clear and careful in terms of how we are describing all of this and that's what I'm being. The moment that this incident occurred we said we would not fly the helicopters again until investigations were completed, that we understood what had happened and that if there was any rectifications that needed to be made, they had been made. Now, since then, what's become clear is that those investigations are going to take a considerable amount of time. One of the four has already indicated that it will be 12 months before that investigation is complete. These airframes were not intended to be used beyond the end of 2024. In those circumstances it is now impossible to see a scenario where we would complete the investigations, have the recommendations in place, implement those recommendations and then be flying these aircraft for a few weeks at the end of next year. It makes no sense.

STEFANOVIC: I'm sorry –

MARLES: So, on that basis, Karl, what we are doing is making the decision that we really need to be getting the new capability into the air as quickly as possible and that is the Black Hawks, a decision that we had taken prior to this incident occurring. So, you asked the question what do we now know – but if I can finish, Karl – what do we now know that we didn't? What we now know is the duration of these investigations and the fact that given the conditions that we said at the moment that this occurred, there is now no scenario where we would be flying these helicopters again and that's why we're making the decision that we've made today.

STEFANOVIC: It just doesn't make any sense to me that you’re – I mean don't know how – I'm sorry for my tone. I feel genuinely sorry for the families of those Defence personnel. And if I'm sitting there and I'm one of their family members and you're saying to me the very helicopters that my loved ones went up in, crashed, took their lives, can no longer fly anymore? I don't know how you explain that to them.

MARLES: Well, I don't know how to do it more clearly than the way in which I've just done it. We don't yet know what occurred on that night. We don't. Those investigations are still underway. Karl, we are still recovering the actual airframe from the bottom of the Whitsundays. That is still in process now, it is in a really difficult place to recover. So, there is a whole lot more work which needs to be done to understand what had happened. And we're not prejudging what has happened here. That is work that needs to occur. But there is a practical reality now, which is that the investigations that are underway are going to take a year and in circumstances where we had planned to retire this airframe at the end of next year anyway, there is no scenario left anymore where we can imagine that those airframe are going to fly again.

Now, we need to be making sure that the capability, the capability of having helicopters, is up and running as quickly as possible. We need to move to the next capability, which is the Black Hawk. Again, a decision that we had made prior to this incident occurring is in place as quickly as possible. The decision that we're making today allows us to do that.

STEFANOVIC: I understand. But just, again, trying to explain this to families who have lost loved ones, you're saying that essentially these aircraft are now grounded because an investigation is going to take too long that does not in any way appease the hurt, frustration and anger they would feel towards a department that has what now are deemed unsafe aircraft in the sky.

MARLES: Again, Karl, I haven't said too long, I've just said it is going to take this amount of time. It will take the time that it takes. And I have spoken with the families, I've spoken with the families this week, and so they are aware of the processes which are in place here. And I can tell you this, Karl: no one who is involved in this in any way wants to see speculation or people jump to conclusions, they just want the process undertaken in a way where we actually thoroughly get the answers that we need to get in relation to this.

STEFANOVIC: Okay we’re just –

MARLES: Now, people can say we would like those answers yesterday, but we need to do the work that needs to be done in order to get the actual answers as to what happened here.

STEFANOVIC: We're running out of time. Just finally, it's going to be a fairly significant hole in our arsenal. How long – are you rushing forward the replacements? What's the time frame on that?

MARLES: Yeah, I mean, there is a challenge in relation to capability, and again, that's why we're making the decision that we're making today. We already have three Black Hawks in the country now. The first of those took its first flight in the last week. But there are going to be challenges around a capability gap here, and that's why we are working with our international partners, particularly the United States, particularly to get more time for air crew to train so that they can be certified on the Black Hawks as quickly as possible. But this decision is actually all about getting those Black Hawks flying as quickly as we can.

STEFANOVIC: Richard, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.


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