So damning is the royal commission report into the Pike River mining disaster that the Government clearly calculated some form of atonement was necessary. Duly, the accident-prone Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, has stepped forward, saying her resignation was the "right and honourable thing to do". She is right. But it would also have been the right and honourable response once the salient factors in the tragedy were known, rather than on the day the royal commission reported. That was some 15 months ago when the Government first acknowledged the then Department of Labour's comprehensive failings.
Her resignation, therefore, must not in any way distract from the commissioners' findings. In sum, they represent a devastating indictment of practices at Pike River from the board level down. These included, perhaps most dangerously, the ignoring of warnings of reports of excess methane, which continued right up to the morning of the first explosion, on November 19, 2010.
Equally, there is scathing criticism of the government's labour service, which should have stopped mining until the safety risks could be properly managed through adequate systems. The department "assumed" Pike River was complying with the law despite "ample evidence to the contrary". Much of the reason for that assumption lay in the progressive decline in the resourcing and capacity of its mining inspectorate.
In such circumstances, it is little wonder that the Government has signified its willingness to adopt the vast bulk of the royal commission's 16 significant recommendations. Its main response so far has been to establish a high hazards unit, employing four mines inspectors. It has also set up a taskforce to review health and safety at work, but this will not report back until next April. These initiatives, in August last year, were clearly designed to show the Government was doing something, rather than waiting for the report. It might have even harboured the idea that the report would conclude this was enough to straighten things out. If so, that hope has now been thoroughly extinguished.
The royal commission commends these steps. But they fall a long way short of its core recommendation - a new Crown agency focusing solely on health and safety. It would be funded by current levies, although the basis of the levies would be reviewed for high-hazard industries. This agency, the commissioners indicate, is, along with a best-practice regulatory framework for underground mining, the key to avoiding further tragedies. "In relation to underground coal mining, New Zealand has had a tragedy every generation or so, after the lessons of previous tragedies have been forgotten. This time the lessons must be remembered."
The need for such an agency is also evident in other workplaces. As the commission notes, New Zealand has a poor overall health and safety record compared with other advanced countries. It seems somewhat futile, therefore, for the Prime Minister to argue that further investigation is required before such an agency can be founded. Equally, his response jars with the commissioners' view that urgent action is required.
The theme running though their report is that health and safety in the workplace has not been considered seriously enough by employers, workers and successive governments. That has encouraged a culture of risk. In a company with a history of over-promising and under-delivering on coal production, that shortcoming was exacerbated. Twenty-nine West Coast workers paid the ultimate price. Their legacy is a series of findings that should represent a turning point for workplace safety throughout the country.