John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Cunliffe slices through moral fog

Opposition leader will have a big win if he can force the Government to change its mind about Pike River.

David Cunliffe promised a Labour Government would pay the court-ordered compensation. Photo / Peter White
David Cunliffe promised a Labour Government would pay the court-ordered compensation. Photo / Peter White

Is David Cunliffe exploiting the Pike River tragedy for political purposes? Of course he is. It goes with the territory of Leader of the Opposition. You grab whatever is on offer. Or you wither and die.

Cunliffe deserves a big political dividend if he can pressure, embarrass or shame National into reversing the Cabinet's decision not to pay compensation to the families of the 29 miners who lost their lives in the disaster, plus the two who survived.

And the Labour leader certainly gave it a darned good go yesterday.

He sought to use a potent brew of moral persuasion to sweep away the legal obstacles and excuses used to block lump-sum recompense.

The surprise - as yesterday was the third anniversary of the calamity - was that National was caught off guard.

National's Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges, inadvertently helped Cunliffe's case by revealing that the Cabinet discussion on the question of compensation had been brief and that the moral argument for a payout had not even been raised.

(Memo to Bridges from John Key: ministers do not discuss what happens at Cabinet meetings. Leave the talking to me.)

Cunliffe immediately filled the vacuum left by Bridges by promising a Labour Government would pay the court-ordered compensation, most of which the families never saw because Pike River went into receivership. Labour would seek reimbursement from the company's directors and shareholders.

Cunliffe would use "the power of the office of the Prime Minister" to recover the money from the likes of New Zealand Oil and Gas which had a 31 per cent stake in Pike River.

In Cunliffe's version of Come Dine With Me, he would be dining privately with the heads of the relevant companies and they would be "taking something back to their boards" - presumably not a doggy bag.

He saved his killer question for Parliament and Acting Prime Minister Bill English.

"Given that, in this particular case, 29 miners are dead, a royal commission has found that one of his ministries is partially culpable for failing to close the mine, the minister responsible has resigned, a court has ordered compensation, the parent of the company now in receivership has refused to pay that compensation, two Crown entities that are ultimately answerable to him through their boards have voted against the parent company paying compensation, and yet another Crown entity has received insurance payouts and refused to contribute a cent, has the Government honoured all of its moral obligations to the Pike River families?"

With the Cabinet having determined it would not set a precedent, English's hands were tied. He replied that through ACC, the Government honoured its obligations to every family that suffered from a workplace death.

"Any government has to keep in mind the hidden, as well as the high-profile, tragedies."

It was a good point. But Pike River is far more than the sum of its chilling parts - be it the dreadful state of the mine's safety system, the lack of adequate monitoring by the Department of Labour, and so on.

Cunliffe has recognised that Pike River was a special case - and that it therefore deserves special treatment.

National, however, cannot see the political wood for the legal and bureaucratic trees.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- 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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