Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Bring back Nanny State - she'll help keep us safe

Pike River is the latest revelation that our First World claims are wearing thin. Photo / Ross Setford
Pike River is the latest revelation that our First World claims are wearing thin. Photo / Ross Setford

Pike River is one of those work place calamities we used to read about in the cable pages of our newspapers, datelined China. A Third World scandal, we smugly commented over our breakfast muesli, that could never happen in a modern civilised country such as ours. Yet it has, the latest of a string of events which, like the recent comments by Education Ministry head Lesley Longstone, should finally shake us awake from our complacency.

Ms Longstone was roundly abused by the teachers union for the very reasonable comment in her annual report that New Zealand's system isn't first class because Maori and Pasifika children are under-performing. The report backed this up with figures showing 57 per cent of Maori and 65 per cent of Pasifika 18-year-olds achieved NCEA level two, compared with the national average of 74 per cent.

The under-performance of brown kids has been a blot on the education system for decades, long blurring any claims to "world class" status, whatever comparative statistics are trotted out to argue the opposite.

But all the teacher unions could do was attack the messenger for being a foreigner with hidden agendas. How dare she challenge their feel-good myth.

The Pike River disaster highlights our steady fall from our first world perch in another area, that of workplace safety. This dates back to the late 1990s when first the National Government, then Labour led the charge against Nanny State.

The stated object of the 1992 Health and Safety in Employment Act, with modifications a decade later under Labour, is "to promote the prevention of harm to all persons at work and other persons in, or in the vicinity of, a place of work" by "promoting excellence in health and safety management, in particular through promoting the systematic management of health and safety ..."

In its list of objects the act proclaims "that successful management of health and safety issues is best achieved through good faith co-operation in the place of work and, in particular, through the input of the persons doing the work ..."

Very worthy in theory, but in the jungle of real life, a disaster. Government departments cut back on their inspectorates, business operators cut corners to increase profits, and the workers too often kept their heads down, for the sake of their jobs, or big bonuses.

The Pike River Royal Commission findings reveal that by November 2010, as far as health and safety in that mine was concerned, it was every man for himself. The picture is pre-Dickensian. If there were any health and safety requirements, they were ignored, by the Labour Department inspectorate, by the management and by the workers.

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson has taken one for the team, by symbolically resigning from her portfolio, but not from her Cabinet salary.

What is needed, is a change in philosophy, not in figurehead.

Pike River is just the latest revelation that our First World claims are wearing as thin as the tourist advertising that promotes our pure and green status.

The commission of inquiry into the Canterbury earthquakes for example, is revealing how our emergency services were running around like headless chooks after the killer quake.

And a Transport Accident Investigation Commission report into the death of eight tourists and the pilot, during a skydiving trip in the Southern Alps around the same time as the first Christchurch shake, pointed to a slackness all round when it came to safety.

The commission blamed the Civil Aviation Authority for not inspecting the modified topdressing plane, the company that modified the plane, along with the operators and the pilot. TAIC chief inspector Ian McLelland said regulation in the industry had not matched its rapid expansion and "we had a disconnect between what was in place in terms of regulatory oversight and what was happening out there in the field". Tougher regulations are now in place.

Skydiving is not the only area of adventure tourism causing concern. This year Minister of Tourism John Key said, "We think about 50 people have lost their lives" in the last eight years engaging in adventure tourism. A North and South magazine investigation uncovered 29 deaths and 450 serious accidents in the industry in the past five years.

Admittedly, an element of risk goes with adventure tourism, but the nine deaths in the skydiving disaster had nothing to do with the sport, the victims just happened to be aboard a plane that crashed moments after take-off.

The critics of Nanny State are wisely lying low for now. Mr Key zeroed in on the Pike River Coal Company for his strongest criticism, saying it "utterly failed" to protect its workers. But he did concede that if the Department of Labour had been employing "world's best practice" the disaster may have been averted.

Last week the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment revealed it has unearthed widespread flouting of safety requirements on residential building sites. Since July, 400 actions have been taken against 760 construction sites - 215 of them were closed down. Building workers were twice as likely to be killed or seriously injured here compared with Britain.

A spokesman said "New Zealand's health and safety performance by international standards is poor". It's time Nanny State was brought out of retirement to help change that.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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