Bryce Edwards: Vital progress in dealing with the Pike River mine tragedy

Bryce Edwards: Vital progress in dealing with the Pike River mine tragedy

The Pike River mine disaster shook New Zealand politics and society. The circumstances that led to the preventable death of 29 men, and the denial of justice to their families, means it remains politically fraught. The government’s announcement of a new agency to deal with the unresolved issue is a big step forward and a strong statement about what this government hopes to stand for.

Why action on Pike River is so important

It might seem strange that seven years after the event, the Pike River mine disaster has re-emerged at the top of the political agenda. In another piece today I’ve tried to explain Why action on Pike River is so important to this government.

I argue it’s become a litmus test for any progressive political party that wants to be considered pro-worker: “The death of 29 men at the Pike River mine in 2010 has become a symbol of what is wrong with politics and economic power in our society… What happened that day wasn’t some kind of natural disaster – it was a preventable accident caused by the unsafe business practices of the mine owner, which operated under extremely lax health and safety practices that previous National and Labour governments had implemented and subsequently failed to tighten up.”

This was all verified by the release of the Pike River Royal Commission report back in 2012, which I described as “a compendium of political and corporate negligence.” For coverage of this at the time, see two political roundup columns, Pike River’s political implications, and Labour’s role in Pike River.

Yet, even after the Commission’s report came out, there continued to be an unsatisfactory response from authorities. In fact, there’s never been any sort of proper justice for the families of the victims. As I outlined in another column earlier this year, New Zealand is very good at allowing The unaccountability of elites.

But in the years since then there’s been a rising public pushback against elites and authorities, and “against capitalism”. This anti-Establishment mood means politicians – especially those of a leftwing or populist persuasion – are now more inclined to tap into this discontent. For more on this, see John Moore’s blog post, Pike River and the anti-Establishment zeitgeist. He argues “New Zealand politicians are very aware of how the Pike River mining disaster has taken on a symbolic value of representing the ugly face of ‘peak capitalism’, and of the general failures of ‘neo-liberalism’.”

This is all pushing the Labour Party to the left. Although the NBR’s Rob Hosking takes a more cynical view: “The Pike River issue has become talismanic – it involves mining on the West Coast, and today’s inner-city, villa-living Labour politicians like to wax nostalgic over such symbols. In other words, it has become yet another part of Ms Ardern’s brand management approach to government” – see Hosking’s column, Pike River the latest piece of Ardern brand management (paywalled).

Action over Pike River 

On Monday, the coalition government announced the establishment of the new Pike River agency tasked with re-entering the mine. The agency will be set up in January, headed by a chief executive who will report to Andrew Little, the Minister Responsible for Pike River. It will receive funding of $23 million over three years.

Yesterday’s New Zealand Herald editorial explains the new agency’s role: “The Cabinet has agreed to place the abandoned mine under the management of a new agency that will be given three objectives. The first, gather evidence about what may have caused the explosion. The second, give victims’ loved ones “closure and peace of mind”. Third, “if possible recover any human remains”.” – see: Involving Pike families a crucial move.

Gordon Campbell says the new course of action is fitting: “This new effort is the least that can be done, given the role that successive National and Labour governments played (in legislative changes made in 1993) that fatally weakened the framework of health and safety protections available to New Zealand workers. Subsequently, the Pike River Royal Commission found those regulatory changes led directly to the disaster” – see: On the new Pike River agency.

Campbell points to the lack of justice for the victims’ families. Even when it came to compensation “secured creditors like the BNZ got paid in full ($50 million) from the insurance proceeds, while the Pike River families received a comparative pittance”.

And he argues National was negligent in the way it dealt with the families: “The Key/English administrations effectively excluded the families, discounted their experts, and strung the families along about the potential for re-entry, with no closure date in sight. By contrast, the new agency’s approach will be inclusive, all available expertise will be drawn upon and the families will be regularly advised of progress, with fixed dates for decision.”

Campbell says it is “ somewhat ironic” that Andrew Little will lead the new agency “given that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster in 2010, Little – then head of the EPMU – had initially defended the mine’s health and safety record.”

Little himself acknowledges the portfolio is very personal to him – see Claire Trevett’s profile: Andrew Little: The Renaissance Man. She reports “At the moment, the only thing that has made it on to the wall in his office is a piece of paper with photos of the 29 miners who died in the Pike River Mine disaster seven years ago.” She quotes his explanation: “That’s to remind me that that’s what I’m there for. They’re the guys who’ve lost their lives and they are what this is all about ultimately.”

In the same article, Little also deals with the issue of Winston Peters’ promise to be the first to re-enter the mine: “in my view it is specialist work. I don’t detract from his enormous skills and talents and expertise in a lot of matters, however there is a level of danger attendant on this and I want the full risk assessment to happen.”

How “new” is the Government’s approach?

Some commentators and politicians are questioning how the new approach outlined by the Government is all that different from National’s. After all, the prime minister and Andrew Little are stressing that they can’t guarantee entry to the mine will happen, and that they will have to rely on experts to determine whether it is safe to do so.

Tuesday’s Dominion Post editorial says: “in the end the result might prove to be the same: that the mine cannot be safely entered, and the families will again be left high and dry. In which case the grief and the outrage will go on… So how is that different from what the last lot of governing politicians said? Former National Prime Minister John Key said he would do everything possible to get the bodies out. Labour politicians promised to do something similar” – see: New rulers but the same old problem at Pike River.

Similarly, see Barry Soper’s column, Every chance Pike River situation will remain same for years.

And the National Party might be forgiven for feeling that the parties of the new Government dished out the criticism while in Opposition, but have now adopted a similar stance on re-entering the mine.

National’s spokesperson for Workplace Safety and Pike River, Amy Adams, says: “It seems to me that there’s a considerable softening on the position they expressed repeatedly and quite emphatically during the campaign – that they already had clear advice that they could re-enter and that they would be absolutely doing so… Now it seems what they are saying is far more in line with what the previous government had consistently maintained which is that it absolutely wasn’t opposed to a manned re-entry but that it would have to be done in a way which was safe” – see Benedict Collins’ National accuses govt of back peddling on Pike pledge.

National Party supporter Ele Ludemann suggests that perhaps the politicians were Mining personal grief for political ends: “Little will be criticised for his safety-first stance, but this time it’s the right one. The wrong one was making a promise that he and the other politicians, including his leader, Jacinda Ardern, should never have made. Those politicians were mining personal grief for political ends. It was despicable behaviour.”

Another National-aligned blogger, David Farrar, questions whether the money might be put to better use by giving it to the families: “$23 million is a lot of money. I don’t begrudge it, if a re-entry can be done safely. But it does make me wonder whether the families would appreciate an offer of spending that $23 million on them directly, rather than a re-entry attempt that might not even be successful” – see: Would the families rather have $1 million each or re-entry?

And the difficulty of the re-entry task is reiterated by the “geologist who warned of the dangers of Pike River three years before the tragic explosion”, who now “says it will be impossible for the new government agency to safely reach the guts of the drift” – see the Herald’s Geologist Murray Cave: Re-entry to guts of Pike River ‘impossible’.

The big difference in the new government’s approach

Ultimately, as the Dominion Post editorial points out, the big difference in the approach of the new government is the way it is involving the mine victims’ families: “Perhaps the main political difference right now is that Little is working alongside the families and involving them in the project.”

Barry Soper goes further, suggesting “what it comes down to is whether the previous National Government was completely forthcoming with all of its information on Pike. The discovery of the 36 hours of footage of the mine’s drift this year suggests perhaps it wasn’t. That’s what cast doubt on the handling of the situation again seven years on”.

And the Herald’s editorial also presses the importance of this inclusive approach: “It will not be enough to give them briefings in Greymouth as the previous Government did when it had progress (or lack of it) to report. The families will need to be treated almost like a board of directors for the agency, not with the power to tell it what to do but to be part of its discussions in deciding what to do.”

The families themselves seem to be on board with this type of suggestion. Nicholas Jones reports “It was possible a family representative would be on a selection panel for the new Pike River Recovery Agency chief executive and other key staff such as the on-site manager” – see: Winston Peters confident of Pike River re-entry. Furthermore, “The families had also discussed making the decision process more transparent to the wider public, including the possibility of hearings, and releasing documents and materials.”

Finally, political journalists at TV3’s Newshub have long championed the Pike River mine families and their campaign, and in September when a memorial was established at the mine, Lloyd Burr wrote passionately about the place and what had happened: “But there’s something in the air. It’s injustice. The memorial is a reminder of the injustices the families have had to endure. The injustice of the disaster, the injustice of way the attempted rescue was carried out, the injustice of the failed recovery efforts, and the injustice of failed re-entry bids. It’s a reminder of the injustice of Pike River bosses flouting laws, and escaping charges, and getting away scot free. To the families, it’s a reminder of the injustice of John Key’s broken promise, and his Government’s treatment of those who’ve given up everything to fight for answers” – see: Injustice in paradise at Pike River.