Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Pike River's political implications

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The neoliberal framework of deregulation may have finally have had its day in New Zealand. The Royal Commission's report into the Pike River disaster - which is both highly political and utterly damning - blames successive governments for creating and presiding over the regulations (or lack of) directly responsible for the conditions under which the tragedy occurred. For the full extent of this, see Duncan Garner's Corporate, Government and departmental manslaughter. Garner argues that the 'genesis of this tragedy started in 1992 when National watered down health and safety rules in the Department of Labour'. He says that 'This is a debacle of monumental proportions and massive change is necessary, at both departmental and Government level'. For further detail of how the orthodoxy of light regulation contributed to the disaster, see Andrea Vance's very good summary of the Royal Commission's report: Cost-cutting drive at tragedy's heart.

Similarly, Tracy Watkins says that the report is 'an acknowledgement that successive governments and the bureaucracy have failed workers in the worst possible way. It marks a turning point away from the orthodoxy of the past 20 years' - see: Pike River report a damning indictment. She says 'It is a damning indictment on a regulatory regime in New Zealand that has seen layers of prescriptive regulations peeled back to balance safety considerations against productivity. In the wake of the leaky-buildings fiasco, and equally damning evidence from the Commission of Inquiry into the Canterbury earthquakes, our confidence in our public institutions and the rules they work under must now be seriously shaken'. Likewise, the Stuff website reports that 'The royal commission report into the Pike River disaster is likely to force an overhaul of light-handed safety laws that have left New Zealand ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for workers in the developed world' - see: Pike River: Safety overhaul 'urgently needed'.

There needs to be a commitment to a timeline for implementing the recommendations, writes Gordon Campbell, because 'Key is now mulling over whether to follow the Royal Commission's advice, or to subvert it' - see: Royal Commission Pike River report. Looking more broadly, Colin James also sees deregulation - or inadequate regulation - as the cause of a host of problems in the modern world and politics - see: Risks from both under and overregulation.

Although the Pike River mining tragedy was initially deemed to be non-political by many, it has been politicised with the reports release. There could be electoral implications too, with National's competence in government already under fire. The damning report is essentially a compendium of the political and corporate negligence that led to the preventable deaths of 29 men. People will be increasingly angry when the full implications of the report sink in.

The National Government will be hoping to escape the public opprobrium with Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson resigning from her portfolio. But John Armstrong condemns this, saying Wilkinson should be resigning from Cabinet, not just one portfolio - see: Wilkinson's resignation the least she could get away with. Armstrong also makes the interesting argument that the Prime Minister was at fault for putting such an 'economic dry' into the portfolio in the first place: 'Key's mistake is that he put a born-again deregulator into a portfolio where regulations were in desperate need of promulgation and then enforcement. Few other National Party ministers display a tone and demeanour which is so avowedly hostile to the interests of the workforce compared with employers'.

The Herald editorial today also criticises Wilkinson for not resigning 15 months earlier when her department's failings were first acknowledged - see: Let miners' legacy be a turning point. And in refusing to resign from Cabinet, it appears that Wilkinson is yet another minister using the policy famously instigated in 1943 by Bob Semple (Labour Minister of Works) who proclaimed 'I am responsible, but not to blame' for failures in his ministry. Her partial resignation also echoes that of Denis Marshall who only resigned his Conservation portfolio nearly a year after the 1995 Cave Creek disaster.

According to the NBR's Rob Hosking, Wilkinson will hardly be missed as the Minister of Labour as she 'always looked out of her depth', and her 'lawyer's approach' to the role wasn't always useful - see: Wilkinson's exit gives chance for minister with drive.

Andrea Vance points out that the Pike River disaster is turning from a major plus to a major negative for the Government: 'The prime minister's stocks rose sky high in the weeks following the disaster. But almost two years on from the death of the 29 miners, their families feel betrayed.... That Key will not return to Greymouth for the release speaks volumes' - see: National braces for Pike River backlash.

National's saving grace might, however, be the bipartisan nature of the extreme deregulatory approach taken to the mining industry. The main party of the opposition, Labour, has it's hands tied over the issue and will be feeling rather uncomfortable now. After all, Labour was in power for a decade and actually bedded in those reforms rather than repealed them. The Pike River mine - which the Royal Commission report said should never have been allowed to open - opened while Labour was in power, and the responsible minister was Trevor Mallard. This is a fact pointed out by David Farrar in Armstrong on Pike River and Cameron Slater in Should more heads roll?. Having fingers pointed at the opposition will help deflect some blame. Labour leader David Shearer is promising that if any of his MPs were partly responsible for creating the conditions for the disaster then he will also take action against them. So Wilkinson may not be the final political victim of the mining tragedy - Trevor Mallard might want to consider his options.

That mining companies sometimes put profits ahead of safety will surprise no-one with the slightest knowledge of the industry's history. That successive governments in the 21st century could allow them to get away with it for so long, with the inevitable result, is the real scandal.

Other recent important or interesting political items include:

* Changes to MMP proposed by the Electoral Commission are so regressive that No Right Turn is hoping that the National Government either ignores some of the recommendations or just cans the whole report - see: MMP: They blew it again. Tracy Watkins has put forward a much more nuanced analysis of what the Government might do - see: National must absorb MMP changes. Also, David Farrar evaluates the various proposals in The final MMP recommendations.

* Making international headlines is the stuff of dreams for Kiwi Prime Ministers, sometimes - see: Toby Manhire's Key's "thick as batshit" Beckham comments win international headlines.

* The current Labour font-bench isn't a patch on the one that won government in 1999, and even the survivors from that era are well past their use-by date according to Michael Valley at the Standard - see: Assessing Labour's frontbench. If you fancy yourself as David Shearer's media adviser then the Standard has made it easy - see: Make your own "Shearer Says"!.

* Treasury chief executive Gabriel Makhlouf may just be belatedly moving the department into the MMP era, but there could be constitutional issues if the trend for Treasury to openly advocate for particular policies continues, writes John Armstrong - see: Treasury door letting in winds of change.

* Is Secretary of the Cabinet Rebecca Kitteridge destined to be 'the new Margaret Bazley'? - see Herald: Clean sweep at spy agency.

* The real losers from the proposed lobbying legislation won't be professional PR consultants but, rather, ordinary voters writes Mark Blackham of Blackland PR: Lobbying Bill a moat around Parliament.

* Chris Trotter says today that 'So many of the contemporary Left romanticise poverty, imbuing it with mysterious moral power', whereas former Labour PM Norman Kirk 'despised such nonsense', and he also despised social liberalism - see: Kirk pledged to overcome poverty.

* Is getting arrested for protesting part of Mana's candidate selection criteria? Vice-president John Minto is facing more charges relating to a housing protest, as is his leader Hone Harawira and 2011 candidate and ex-MP Sue Bradford, who is facing charges after a welfare reform protest - see Marika Hill's Minto pleads not guilty to assault.

* It's been a big week for a blogger turned newspaper editor - see Steve Braunias' The secret diary of . . . Whale Oil (Cameron Slater).

* Finally, 'Are you passionate about the meaninglessness of language, the impossibility of knowledge and the non-existence of reality?' If so, then you might suit a job working for John Key. Or so says Danyl Mclauchlan in his esoteric and very clever blogpost Vacancies close Friday.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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