What price can we put on a human life, or even on grief at a life cut short? The true answer is none. A loved one's existence is the very definition of priceless. Which is probably why few voices have been raised against the notion of spending $36 million for the Pike River Mine re-entry.

The families of the men killed in the mine haven't just been bereaved, they've been tortured, by a drawn-out saga of broken promises and indecision.

People in grief or anger need to be heard, and it's clear today that many Pike River families felt ignored or patronised in their sorrow. The $36m could be seen as the cost of not taking people's feelings seriously.


There's no certainty any of their questions surrounding the disaster will be answered, or that any of the men's remains will be found or retrievable. It's possible the mine will remain their only resting place.

And not all the Pike River families have supported efforts to retrieve the bodies. Dame Fiona Kidman told Parliament last year that four families wanted their loved ones to rest underground and undisturbed.

Perhaps a more fitting memorial would be $36m spent on worker safety in some of the other industries, such as forestry, with a high mortality rate. Or on funding education for the children of victims of work accidents. Or on programmes to prevent more premature deaths of young people, such as those at risk from suicide, misusing alcohol and other drugs.

The Pike River announcement came shortly after Armistice Day commemorations brought home the fact that remembrance ceremonies were all that were available to many bereaved families from World War I. Not for them a repatriation or re-entry plan to give them closure.

"Of the 2721 New Zealand servicemen who died at Gallipoli, 67 per cent of bodies were never recovered, and of the 12,483 New Zealand men who lost their lives on the Western Front, 33 per cent were not located," writes Rachel Patrick on 1914-1918-online.

Would it have helped my grandfather if the bodies of his four brothers had been brought back to Opotiki from the killing fields of Europe? Or would he still have ended up a miserable and bitter old man, anyway?

In August, the Government paid for the bodies of 27 members of the defence forces and one child to be returned from Malaysia and Singapore. It is expected the Te Auraki policy will eventually see 36 bodies of personnel killed overseas repatriated at a cost of $7m.

It's at this point in the arithmetic that commentators begin to make specious comparisons to worthy medical treatment or other social goods. Te Auraki, for instance, would pay for 46 heart transplants or 280 prostate brachytherapies.


The New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust has been trying to drum up financial support from local bodies to fund a $15m World War I memorial museum in Le Quesnoy, France. Hamilton said the $150,000 can be better used at home, thanks, but Waipa was happy to chip in for the equivalent of one heart transplant or six prostate brachytherapies.

Not so long ago, thunderbolts of invective were being thrown at the Prime Minister for her profligate decision to take a separate Air Force flight to the Pacific Forum — at an alleged cost of around $80,000 (half a heart transplant, five prostate brachytherapies, plus change) — so she could keep the visit short while nursing her baby.

Paradoxes abound when we start putting dollar values on the priceless.

There's no right or wrong here — merely a reminder that public spending is not always evidence of what we really value, and that spending decisions concerning "taxpayers' money" are often just as emotional and inconsistent as any other.