Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Labour's role in Pike River

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Labour has blood on its hands, suggests Chris Trotter is his column today about the Pike River disaster. He says that the traditions of the Labour Party are to make life safer for workers, yet 'if there's "blood on the coal" at Pike River - Labour helped to put it there during its time in office in the 1980s and then under the Helen Clark Government - see: Labour shares Pike River guilt. Trotter tries to explain why the last Labour Government - and especially those ministers in the Labour portfolio; 'Margaret Wilson (1999-2004); Ruth Dyson (2005-07); and Trevor Mallard (2007-08)' - 'for nine long years did nothing to prevent the tragedy which, in such a criminally deregulated environment, was only ever a matter of time'. Apparently, there 'was no appetite in the Clark-led Labour Government for a return to the so-called "heavy-handed" regulations of the past' and he says that the current Labour Party is still enthralled with neoliberalism and deregulation.

What about the union movement? According to leftwing blogger Steven Cowan, the union movement - or at least the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) - also has blood on its hands. In a stridently critical blogpost entitled How 'modern unionism' failed the Pike River miners, Cowan quotes Labour MPs Damien O'Connor and Andrew Little defending the Pike River Company. O'Connor is quoted from 2010 saying that the disaster was 'just one of these things that the West Coast unfortunately has had to get used to over the years' and suggesting that the company wasn't necessarily to blame. According to Cowan, the then the head of the EPMU, Andrew Little, went into bat for the company saying there was 'nothing unusual about Pike River or this mine that we've been particularly concerned about'.

But for the moment the heat continues to be on the National Government and Kate Wilkinson, who continues to refuse to resign from Cabinet. The political rule to never ask a question publically that you don't already know the answer to may well apply to Wilkinson's 'What have I done wrong?' Her apparently genuine bewilderment at being asked to make a real sacrifice shows, more than any other statement, that her resignation as Minister of Labour was purely a symbolic and political gesture. After all - why resign at all if no wrong has been done? It seems the public servants under Wilkinson may be clearly told what they did wrong as John Key 'refused to rule out further heads rolling within the public service as a result of the tragedy' - see Andrea Vance, Tracy Watkins and Danya Levy's 'What have I done wrong?'.

While there may be no smoking gun linking Wilkinson directly to the Pike River tragedy, her overall performance in protecting New Zealand workers from harm may provide some answers to her question. After the mine disaster Shell Todd Service general manager Rob Jager was asked to lead a task force to improve workplace safety and he described New Zealand's record in workplace health and safety as 'extremely poor'. This week he said that 'Our fatality rate is more than six times as bad as UK and nearly twice as bad as Australia' - see Audrey Young's NZ's safety record slammed.

There have been numerous editorials and opinion pieces urging the government to get on with implementing the Royal Commission's recommendations. Nearly all, like Brian Rudman, say leaving businesses to look after workplace safety was a mistake that must be rectified - see: Bring back Nanny State - she'll help keep us safe. There are parallels with other costly mistakes thinks Rosemary McLeod: 'In the fever of deregulation that we imagined meant good things would happen, we also changed building regulations, resulting in a housing catastrophe that we seem unwilling to confront and which will roll on for years to come, ruining people who bought homes in good faith' - see: Pike River a show of profits before safety.

Despite the Prime Minister's defense of Wilkinson in Parliament, he seems to indicate that business self-interest is still considered the primary protector of safety at work: 'saying that a company is prepared to risk the deaths of its employees and the reputation of the company for the sole purpose of making money, and even from the most hardened socialist I find that something difficult to believe'. No Right Turn despairs: 'But as the report makes clear, this is exactly what happened at Pike River. A failing company ignored health and safety and risked the lives of its workers in a desperate effort to stay afloat. There are now 29 corpses rotting in a mine as evidence that the Prime Minister's rosy-eyed view is Utterly, horribly wrong.

Finally, to get a visual sense of how the original disaster and the Royal Commission's report has been received, see my blogpost, The Politics of the Pike River tragedy - in images and cartoons.

Other recent important or interesting political items include:

* The must-read opinion piece on the Electoral Commission's recommendations to improve MMP is Mark Blackham's MMP reform in NZ. This points out that the Commission's proposals would 'make Parliament less representative'. He puts forward the argument in favour of abolishing the MMP threshold. But if newspaper editorials are anything to go by, there seems to be significant approval of the Electoral Commission's recommendations to improve MMP - see The Herald's National can afford faith in small parties, the ODT's Voters looking for lead on MMP, the Waikato Times' MPs' views don't count, and the Dominion Post's Electoral changes in the public interest. Blogger Pete George suggests that such views are simply biased in favour of the interest of the bigger political parties - see: Dominion Post editorial biased towards larger parties on MMP. Also, well worth reading is John Armstrong's Parties playing politics with MMP proposals.

* Unemployment has hit a 13-year high, and the politicians are scrambling to find the reasons. For the Prime Minister, the blame is Auckland, which is skewing the national survey - see: Key dismisses unemployment concerns. For Tariana Turia, however, the problem is discrimination - see RadioLive's Maori discrimination raises unemployment - Turia. Forget gay shirts, asset sales, David Beckham and Kim Dotcom, the real threat to National's re-election chances is the economy according to Duncan Garner, who thinks the jobless figures may be much more than a 'blip' - see: Is our economy collapsing?. Garner, in an earlier post, argues Bill English will have to officially give up on their surplus target very soon - see: Surplus target up in smoke.

* This week Jane Clifton evaluates the Government's housing affordability proposals, and explains why they're in a difficult situation without many real options - see: National's affordable housing package.

* Is there a bias in the media against right-wing experts? Karl du Fresne thinks so, and explains why journalists should put less store in academic commentators especially - see: We should bow to experts - unless they happen to be right-wing.

* The Listener profile on David Cunliffe probably hasn't done his political career any favours. It is now available online - see: Guyon Espiner's Reinventing David Cunliffe.

* Yet another vote of 'no confidence' is expressed in the Greens' lobbying regulation private members bill - this time by the executive director of the association of NGOs - see Dave Henderson's Lobbying bill a sledgehammer.

* New Zealand is said to be the least corrupt nation in the world. But Transparency International wants to get a more in-depth and sophisticated picture of the integrity of our system and next week is launching the New Zealand National Integrity System Assessment.

* While the debate over the consequences of 'light handed regulation' in health and safety continues, it is interesting to see that problems caused by a similar philosophy in building regulations is still a very long way off resolution. Home-owners who had their leaky homes signed off by private certifiers are missing out on compensation - see: Anne Gibson's Leaky payout plan works - Govt.

* The continuation of the human species is apparently like choosing heated leather seats and in-built GPS navigation for your car according to Paul Clark, who owns the New Zealand Ammunition Company - see: Ben Heather's Having family 'like buying a luxury car'.

* Not so long ago National agreed to the Maori Party's wish to have the Tino Rangitiratanga flag officially flown on Waitangi Day, but the days of supporting such symbolic acts of co-operation seem over - see: Isaac Davison's National's opposition to Treaty oath 'disturbing' - Maori Party. National's Tau Henare didn't hide his support for the bill and says he considered crossing the floor: 'But that did not create stable government, he said. Voting down the bill meant we were the same as the ''other colonial nations"' - see Kate Chapman's: Henare followed party line, Key says.

* Brian Edwards takes the time to explain to a fallen MP why hypocrisy, rather than making a mistake many years ago, was his undoing - see: David Garrett writes to me and I respond.

* Backdowns are politically embarrassing, so Hekia Parata's strategy to avoid them seems to be to deny that there was anything to back down from in the first place - see: Charley Mann's Parata rejects high school mergers.

* Ever wondered why and how Cameron Slater has come to be so big in the beltway of New Zealand politics? Brian Edwards explains that, like Winston Peters, the Whaleoil blogger (and now newspaper editor) is 'the joker in this pack of dullards', and Edwards says that 'politics in this country has never been duller' - see: I meet Cameron Slater and get to thinking about boring politicians.

- 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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