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March 27, 2014

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (11:39): I rise to support this condolence motion and associate myself with the comments made by many members in this place, particularly those by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. This is an extraordinary disaster. As the Deputy Prime Minister correctly identified just a few moments ago, it will remain one of the great aviation mysteries of modern history. We last heard from flight MH370 on 8 March, which is almost three weeks ago. It is now presumed lost with all on board perishing. On behalf of the people of Gippsland, I extend my condolences to those who have suffered losses in this extraordinary event. We can empathise and we can sympathise, but we cannot possibly comprehend the grief they must feel and the uncertainty that surrounds their lost loved ones.

This event has generated an extraordinary level of interest across Australia and throughout the world. The media coverage has been almost unprecedented in its depth and extent, primarily because of the mystery that the Deputy Prime Minister referred to earlier. The global reaction has been one of disbelief that a modern plane with so many inbuilt security features and technological advances could simply disappear in the manner in which it did. And we have been subjected to all manner of theories and opinions about that. I will leave it to the experts to hopefully uncover what did transpire. The bottom line is that we may never know what actually happened with flight MH370. Our thoughts and our prayers are obviously with the 239 passengers and crew members, including the six Australians whom many members here have spoken about today, who perished.

Part of the reason for the global reaction to this event is that air travel in the 21st century has become common to us all. We are so used to getting on board aircraft and just presuming we will get to our destination safely. Air travel in Australia in particular has a great safety record. It is a common experience for us to get on board and expect to land at our destination whether it be for work or for pleasure. I suppose this event has reminded us all of the frailty of human life and that there are risks associated with flight, whether it be risks due to engineering or technical faults or due to human action. I am sure we will be subjected to many more theories in the weeks and months ahead, but for today in this place I think it is most appropriate that we rise to extend our condolences in the manner in which we do in the parliament of Australia.

I want to reflect for a moment on the multinational search effort surrounding MH370 and the huge logistical exercise which has transpired over the past three weeks. In particular, I want to give credit to the Australian authorities who have been involved almost every step of the way. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, I have had the opportunity to meet many of our crews over the last six months and without exception they have impressed me with their dedication and enthusiasm, and their youthfulness. It is quite staggering when you see the age of these young pilots, navigators and crew members who are involved in this search effort. Many of them are in their early 20s and they do an extraordinary job on behalf of our nation. I note the member for Riverina’s encouragement just now. Given his close relationship with Defence Force personnel in his own electorate, he knows very well what a contribution those young men and women make to our community. The Australian Defence Force contribution in this case has been quite staggering. We have four P3 aircraft in the air and we have the supply ship HMAS Success as well as base support and personnel support. The Royal Australian Navy vessel Ocean Shield is due to arrive on 29 March and we are hopeful that it will play a critical and successful role in the search for sunken wreckage, including the flight recorder, which we all hope will provide some of the answers to the questions we have been asking over the past three weeks.

I take this opportunity to publicly thank all of the crews who have been involved, both Australian and international, who have persevered in this search despite some extraordinarily long hours and the difficult search area off the Western Australian coast. If there is a positive to come out of this disaster, it has to be the extraordinary international effort that has been brought to bear on this task.
People often question their contribution—the demand placed on the public purse by organisations like the Australian Defence Force or the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. It is in events like this that we see why it is so important we have that capability. Our crews are among the best in the world, if not the best. If there is something to be found there, I am confident that our crews are well placed to do that for us—on behalf not just of the Australian community but also of the international community, which is so captivated by this issue. We do have a great capability for search and rescue and I am confident that if there is something to be found, and it is possible to find it, our crews will be up to the task.

The Acting Prime Minister at the time, Warren Truss, and the Defence minister, Senator Johnston, have both visited the Pearce air base. I had the opportunity to visit Pearce last weekend as the search effort was gearing up, and there was an extraordinary level of activity at Pearce as they awaited the arrival of several international aircraft. I reflect for a moment that the international media contingent—the camera crews—numbered into the thirties out the front of the Pearce air base. It was the real focal point of activity in terms of media interest in this issue.

I commend the local base staff for the way they managed this issue on the day, and the way they continue to manage the issue, in terms of pride and support for that international media contingent. I also congratulate them on the way they have pulled together this extraordinary logistical effort. As the Minister for Defence himself indicated, the task involved in flying up to four hours to the search zone means they only have about two hours on station to do their work in terms of the search effort—then another four hours back. It is putting a huge demand on our crews. As I indicated earlier, they are young crews; they are enthusiastic and dedicated but they are also extremely well trained and they are doing credit to our nation in the work that they do. I commend them for that effort.

It is a difficult area to access. It is also a perilous area for these types of activities, and we wish them every safety as they go about their task. We are talking about some of the worst oceanic conditions in the world. I understand the sea state was No. 7 in the last couple of days. For those who do not travel much out of lakes and rivers, like myself, trying to carry out your work in sea state 7 is quite extraordinary. I wish them sincerely every safety as the crews go about their dangerous task.

The importance of this effort in terms of recovery of wreckage cannot be underestimated. It will provide clues for the investigators as they go about their work of trying to uncover what exactly happened to MH370. As we grieve with the families and friends of the passengers and crew, we should also spare a thought for the other staff of Malaysia Airlines. The Malaysia Airlines staff, who would have known the people onboard—the crew—and who now continue to fly those aircraft would have uncertainties and concerns of their own. We should think about them in the days and weeks ahead. The tragedy is that some of their colleagues have perished, people they worked with on a daily basis, and they continue to fly the particular aircraft. That would actually be something quite difficult for them to come to terms with. I wish them well as they go about their task, also, in the weeks and months ahead.

Finally, we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that this mystery may not be solved. To the grieving relatives and friends: I fear we may not ever get a full explanation of what transpired on that flight. In supporting the condolence motion, I simply wish them well in the very difficult time they have ahead of them and again congratulate the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, our Defence personnel, and the civilians who have been involved in this task. They have done us proud and I wish them every safety as they go about that task.

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