Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Pike River must pay up, Kiwis say

Plan to pressure shareholders to compensate victims' families impractical, says Attorney General's office

64.4% of 750 Kiwis polled believe the company's shareholders should make good on the compensation. Photo / Martin Hunter
64.4% of 750 Kiwis polled believe the company's shareholders should make good on the compensation. Photo / Martin Hunter

Most New Zealanders believe Pike River Coal's shareholders should pay court-ordered compensation for the families of miners killed in the company's mine, a Herald-DigiPoll survey suggests.

In July, District Court Judge Jane Farish convicted Pike River Coal on health and safety charges and ordered the company to pay the families $3.41 million. But the company is in receivership and could not pay. Its shareholders said they would not pay either.

Last week's poll of 750 New Zealanders found 64.4 per cent believed the company's shareholders should make good on that compensation.

Just 19.8 per cent supported the Government paying out instead and 16 per cent said they didn't know.

Pike River families spokesman Bernie Monk said he was not surprised that a majority of the public thought the company's shareholders should pay out.

Mr Monk and his wife Kath lost their son Michael in the disaster. He said the compensation issue was never about the money for him but other families were struggling financially despite ACC and other payments.

He pointed to this month's announcement that $3.4 million in insurance money previously earmarked for mine manager Peter Whittall's legal costs would now go to the families after charges against him were dropped.

"If they had insurances against court cases to fight the families in court why didn't they have insurances to cover such disasters like this? That's what I can't understand."

In their quest for the court-ordered compensation, the Pike River families had been "put in the position where we're the villains, but we're the victims". "We shouldn't be even discussing who should be paying the money; the families should have been compensated one way or another whether it was from the company or an insurance policy they had."

He said having the Government pay was one option to ensure families received the compensation but another one was to pay it out of any future production at the mine.

"That way the country wouldn't have to pay for it. There is another way of doing it all."

The Government considered making the payment itself but Cabinet decided against doing so, drawing fire from the Opposition. Labour leader David Cunliffe last month said a Government he led would pay out the families and recover the money through pressure on the shareholding companies.

Mr Cunliffe said the result backed his position.

"The combined view of fair-minded New Zealanders - that in the first instance the company should pay and in the second instance the Government should stand behind it - is at odds with the position taken by John Key which is that the families should be left to fend for themselves.

"The objective has always been that the shareholder companies would pay. The Government would just underwrite that during the process so that the families don't miss out."

A spokesman for Attorney General Chris Finlayson underlined Cabinet's stance that "there is no cause of action for further compensation from the Government".

"The families have received compensation through ACC on the same basis as any family that suffers a workplace or accident death," he said. "ACC has so far paid the families around $5 million, and in the long-term they could receive up to $20 million."

Mr Finlayson's spokesman said Mr Cunliffe's plan to pressure shareholders to pay was impractical.

"There is no legal basis on which the government could force shareholders to pay Pike River's legal debts, nor can the government of the day use the statutorily independent Super Fund or ACC as a private fund to pay for political promises."

- NZ Herald

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