John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Wait and see line leaves minister deep in a hole of her own making

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson. File photo / Martin Sykes
Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson. File photo / Martin Sykes

Wait for the findings of the royal commission has been Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson's stock response when asked what she is doing about safety in other underground mines since the Pike River tragedy.

So yesterday's announcement that a "high hazards unit" will be established within her department with a doubling of the number of mine inspectors would seem to have "ministerial backdown" scrawled all over it.

It is easy to draw the conclusion that the more shocking the revelations at recent royal commission hearings, the greater the political pressure on Wilkinson and she finally had to do something rather than just stonewalling.

Wilkinson has certainly done herself few favours with her "wait for the royal commission" line in the face of repeated questioning in Parliament by two West Coast list MPs, Labour's Damien O'Connor and the Greens' Kevin Hague.

However, a careful reading of her replies over several months reveals she gave plenty of notice of reviews of whether the Labour Department's resources and expertise were up to scratch. In recent weeks, Wilkinson has been careful to draw a distinction between whether the commission blames the accident on a failure of regulations and her taking action now to ensure her department's inspection process is adequate.

The puzzle is why she did not give far more emphasis to that work going on behind the scenes - instead of giving the impression she was sitting back and waiting for the royal commission's recommendations before acting.

The explanation is bureaucratic: that while her department's performance was subject to review and subsequent recommendations were made to the Cabinet, she could say little.

Another explanation is more political: that Wilkinson did not want the focus to shift to her department's practice and record regarding mine safety in recent years - especially given there was just one lone inspector when Pike River suffered its devastating explosions.

She may also have wanted to quietly restructure the way in which her department went about mine safety - rather than have the royal commission do it for her.

The remaining explanation is that she was leaned on from above.

The Prime Minister's stocks rose even higher after his handling of Pike River. So far the Government has escaped blame for the tragedy.

The royal commission's findings may alter that. Better then to straighten things out in advance.

More likely, however, this is less a case of Beehive conspiracy and more one of the absence of political nous on the part of an occasionally accident-prone minister.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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