Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Govt needs to take control of Pike River process, not just delay it

The re-entry of the mine is now firmly an election issue. Illustration / Guy Body
The re-entry of the mine is now firmly an election issue. Illustration / Guy Body

It is incongruous to put "success" and "Pike River" in the same sentence but Dame Fiona Kidman's petition to Parliament on the Pike River Mine issue had almost instant success.

Before the petition was even considered by the Commerce select committee on Thursday, the Prime Minister had granted the first half of her wish - to stop Solid Energy from sealing the mine.

The second plea was that the remains of the 29 men be brought home if humanly possible - but there should be no misunderstanding that the likelihood of that occurring is as remote today as it was last week.

And the re-entry of the mine - more precisely the tunnel to the mine known as the drift - is now firmly an election issue.

English had successfully distanced himself from the matter since becoming Prime Minister in early December, always claiming it was a decision alone for the state-owned Solid Energy on safety grounds.

His decision on Wednesday to "invite"the Solid Energy board to delay the sealing of the mine puts him in the centre of issue.

If he had met the families and done nothing, he might still be able to claim a hands-off approach but he has and so he is involved. And that is as it should be, especially with the company divesting itself of assets by June this year.

Once the mine is permanently sealed, the actual mine will effectively return to the control of the Department of Conservation, which in all probability will never re-enter it.

The alternative to English ordering a delay and getting involved was to allow Solid Energy to return to its mission to seal the mine.

But because of the effective Pike families' picket line, that would have involved police and probably the need for Defence Force as well.

What a terrible image that would have been in the run-up to this year's election - the might of the state being used to subvert the wishes of families.

Not surprisingly, Kidman's submission to the committee was an understated piece of writing about an anguished, gut-wrenching issue produced by a violent explosion in 2010.

It was a study in empathy. It discusses John Key's commitment to "getting the boys out" in realistic terms. It does not impugn other people's motives or create political villains or conspiracies.

It describes how she and her husband, Ian, came to be involved in the lives of these familiar strangers.

She concludes by saying: "It is inconceivable that the bodies of 29 people would lie without further investigation and attempts to recover them on work sites in, say, Wellington, or Auckland," and it is hard to argue with that.

Video

Appearing alongside Kidman at the select committee hearing was Pike River families spokesman Bernie Monk and Tony Forster, the highly credible Scotsman recruited by the Government in 2013 as the Chief Mines Inspector to set up a mines inspectorate after the failures of the previous regulatory regime.

He says the drift can be made safe to enter in stages and the risk properly managed.

They were followed by Solid Energy, the state-owned company that bought Pike River from the liquidators in 2012.

Heaven knows why a company would want to buy a mine with 29 bodies in it - although it didn't have to pay any of its $25 million price tag unless it started producing coal big time.

It was possibly also persuaded to do by the Government, being as it was the organisation with the greatest expertise to explore the possibility of body recovery and also being ultimately subject to direction by Government as owner.

But as the company was at pains to point out this week, its obligation to recover bodies under the Deed Relating to Body Recovery was tied only to a resumption of commercial mining.

And even then, recovery was conditional on three factors: in a way that was safe, technically feasible and financially credible.

It says the first condition cannot be met. The company has a substantial, if contested, body of work by experts sitting behind that conclusion.

The inability of Opposition politicians to grasp the sincerity of that view shows how much Solid Energy has become proxy punching bag for the negligent Pike River company.

But even if there were a safe way to re-enter the drift, there would be a legal impediment.

The law does not allow activities in a mine with only one entrance, unless it is an emergency situation. After six years, it can hardly be deemed an emergency. And a second entrance would cost more than $100 million to build, says Solid Energy.

That is why Labour leader Andrew Little, supported by Winston Peters, proposed a bill granting the Solid Energy board an exemption from the tough new health and safety law, passed in the wake of the Pike River disaster.

As Solid Energy chairman Andy Coupe said, that would be "perverse".

Saying he would rather resign than get an exemption was not bloody-mindedness on his part. He clearly genuinely believes it is unsafe to go back in and in all conscience, even with a legal waiver, it would not be done under his name.

The inability of Opposition politicians to grasp the sincerity of that view shows how much Solid Energy has become proxy punching bag for the negligent Pike River company.

Little's better proposal - unfairly mocked by Peters - is to commission a third independent report to assess the conflicting existing reports and plot a way through.

Peters is taking on the issue with all the passion of the Winebox in the early 90s. It is Peters at his best and worst. He appears to be motivated by a sense of injustice rather than votes, but it brings out a personal intensity and rancour that is rarely seen in New Zealand politics.

The families' focus on re-entry to the drift may be heightened because accountability and justice has been so woefully denied the families in the courts.

Their challenge to Worksafe's decision not to prosecute Pike former chief executive Peter Whittall was dismissed by the Court of Appeal this week in a judgment which favours form over substance. Last stop the Supreme Court.

The fact is, with Solid Energy going out of business, and conflicting safety reports, the Government should be taking control of this hideously complex and highly charged issue.

English may have thought his delay was simply buying time to avoid looking insensitive until the election. That won't do.

He has injected himself into this tragedy and it will be a test of leadership to see how he resolves it.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

Read more by Audrey Young

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 26 Mar 2017 23:20:45 Processing Time: 715ms