Gerad Morris: Pike River inquiry must be public to bitter end

Pike River victim Michael Monk's photo is displayed as his parents, local publicans Bernie and Kath Monk, appear before the Royal Commission into the Tragedy. Photo / The Press
Pike River victim Michael Monk's photo is displayed as his parents, local publicans Bernie and Kath Monk, appear before the Royal Commission into the Tragedy. Photo / The Press

Suggestions that the Pike mine hearings could be closed ignore the real needs of the families, writes Gerard Morris.

The light-fingered governance approach hints of corporate arrogance of the worst kind and is illustrated by the robotic answers given by Pike's senior officials at the inquiry.

There has been a suggestion that the fourth phase of the royal commission into the Pike River mining tragedy that starts on February 7 next year, may be held behind closed doors.

Given the harrowing evidence of recent weeks and the exacerbation of the families' grief that this is causing, there are certainly compassionate grounds for doing this.

Then again, the families have been through so much emotionally and have been so gallant under the public gaze for more than a year that it would be expected that their view would be to see it through given the resilience and dignity they have shown.

Their pleas to get the body recovery work moving are heart wrenching. That process may turn out to provide vital evidence for the commission and confirm or disprove some of the evidence to date. Their pleas for urgency are well founded.

The evidence last week on the "what happened at Pike" phase has drawn comparisons with similar organisational dysfunction that led to tragedies like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Erebus.

Compelling evidence from world and local mining experts tell a damming story which is so hard to absorb given we think we live in an ACC-driven safety culture in this country.

The sheer awfulness of this testimony seems to be going around in a continuous loop. It suggests that whoever went underground at Pike at any stage was at serious risk of a near miss at the very least.

A lot of the emotion surrounding the evidence has been invisible to the public eye except for the regular clips on the news.

Imagine the outcry nationally if that group of share market analysts visiting underground at Pike a few days prior to the tragedy were caught in an explosion, which was highly possible. Would the country then be as ambivalent to the recovery of their bodies?

The evidence of safety manager Neville Rockhouse, who could easily have lost two sons, exposes the raw disconnect within the management structure at Pike and the knock-on effect of its serious undercapitalisation.

The light-fingered governance approach hints of corporate arrogance of the worst kind and is illustrated by the robotic answers given by Pike's senior officials at the inquiry.

The extensive investigative work of the legal team assisting the families and the scrutiny of the witnesses by West Coast-born commission chairman, Judge Pankhurst and commissioners Henry and Bell, is showing that no element of the mine's operation leading up to the tragedy is sacred.

It is a watershed legal instrument for New Zealand compared to other similar investigations.

But what will be the long term emotional cost to the people of the West Coast of this process? When the inevitable documentary series is made of the Pike tragedy, there will be no shortage of reality introductions.

Will the producers use a darkened bedroom scene a few weeks before the tragedy showing a miner's wife coaxing back to bed a stress induced sleepwalking husband barking instructions in his sleep, to get out of the mine in a hurry? Or the panic stricken young widow trying to break in through the mine's access gate to find out the fate of her husband shortly after the first explosion.

Perhaps it will be the caring mother encouraging her buck fit son at the kitchen table to eat his beautiful dinner she has cooked for him while he sits over it clasping his hands to his head, seeking vainly for relief from the gas induced headache he has brought home from Pike?

In Greymouth's town centre, you can stand on the Tainui St corner and almost hear a collective sobbing in the air.

Go up the Grey Valley beside the Paparoas where Pike's tentacles scratched at the ancient geology and white clouds hang about as if in respect for the Pike 29. These hills normally sparkle with 40 hues of green.

Phase four of the royal commission is set to look at the policy and regulatory changes needed to ensure 29 are not killed again in one accident in any workplace in New Zealand, not just in mining.

Whether the public and media are excluded is irrelevant to the dire need to ensure such tragedies are never repeated.

Gerard Morris is a former West Coaster and coal mining journalist. He has co-authored two books on West Coast mining history and three members of his family worked at the Pike River Mine.

- NZ Herald

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