Cynical safety move means minister must quit if 'safe farm' death rate doesn't fall, writes Audrey Young.

"To this day, we still have no justice, no accountability."

So said Bernie Monk, whose son Michael lies in the Pike River coalmine with 28 others, this week in the Legislative Council Chamber at Parliament.

You can understand why the resignation of Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson the day the royal commission reported on the disaster doesn't feel like "accountability" to Mr Monk.

It was an unremarkable resignation, so insignificant compared with the event that led to it.


She had been the minister for only a year when the methane explosion happened.

No one had been baying for her blood in the deeply political way directed at ministers such as Judith Collins over Oravida, David Benson-Pope over tennis balls, or Murray McCully over the Saudi sheep deal.

The honourable view is that Wilkinson's resignation was a mark of responsibility for the failures of all former ministers and Governments that contributed to the disaster.

She was probably also advised to go before the baying started.

Bernie Monk was at Parliament this week campaigning against the weakening of health and safety legislation, which originally required all workplaces to have a health and safety worker representative if requested.

During select committee deliberations, it dawned on the Government that such reps could give unions a platform to strengthen their membership in small worksites.

The Government decided that the political dangers of unions regaining a presence in small workplaces outweighed the benefits unions could bring to reducing physical danger in the workplace.

It will allow small businesses to opt out - unless they are a really dangerous industry.


In an even more cynical move, dangerous farms have been left off the list of high-risk industries which will be required to have health and safety worker representatives.

Among the perverse outcomes are that the "other crop growing" classification (including growing lavender) with only three deaths in the past five years is deemed to be more dangerous and high-risk than dairy farming which, despite having 39 deaths in the same time, is not high risk and can opt out of worker representation.

Because of the high number of workers, dairy cattle farming's risk rating is 16 deaths in 100,000, well below the 25 in 100,000 worker threshold the Government has set.

The classification of sheep, beef cattle and grain farming has had 24 deaths in the same time, but with a risk rating of 12 deaths in 100,000 these farmers get to opt out too.

Lavender growers are not as important to National's support base as dairy farmers.

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse has been assuring Parliament this week that the opt-out changes are not the be-all of the bill, and that it will lead to a culture change and improvements in health and safety.

He may be right but he should be accountable for the results in the way Kate Wilkinson was over Pike River.

If the rate of death increases, or the number of deaths increases in the dairy farming or the sheep, beef cattle and grain farming classifications, Woodhouse should resign.

In matters of health and safety, life and death, the Government has put political convenience first and it should be accountable if it fails.

Even if the rate or numbers were to stay the same, it would be a demonstrable failure in the face of the minister's confidence that the new laws will dramatically improve health and safety standards.

Decisions on ministerial accountability usually, but not always, rest with the Prime Minister.

John Key decided that Judith Collins' personal dealings with Oravida during a trip to China as Justice Minister did not warrant more than public apologies.

He decided that Maurice Williamson's contact with the police over charges against Donghua Liu required his immediate resignation.

And he has decided that McCully's attempts to mend the damage to the relationship with Saudi Arabia through an unorthodox sheep deal with a Saudi businessman does not warrant his resignation - or the need for him to stand aside while the Auditor-General conducts an inquiry as the Opposition has demanded.

That has never been remotely likely, as the whole Cabinet was privy to the decision. Before such extreme action would be warranted, Key would have to have some evidence that he or the Cabinet had been misled by McCully, or that the fuss was undermining the minister's credibility or becoming too much of a distraction for the Government.

The McCully case is nowhere near that threshold.

It is a bit like bail. Not everyone charged with a crime is locked up without bail. Some are free to go about their daily lives, especially valuable members of Government.

If Trevor Mallard hadn't been such a valued member of Helen Clark's Government, he would have been sacked for physically fighting with Tau Henare in the lobbies.

With some exceptions, most ministers who have stood aside during an inquiry have done so when their personal conduct has been in question and/or the inquiry is being conducted by the police or the Serious Fraud Office, as was the case with Dover Samuels, John Tamihere, David Benson Pope and Winston Peters.

It was not such a huge leap for Labour to demand that McCully step down because leader Andrew Little has already demanded his resignation.

Since April, he has called for six ministerial resignations: Simon Bridges over the Northland bridges promises; the minister whose brother is facing criminal charges because of what Little believes is a conflict of interest, Nick Smith after running into difficulties with Ngati Whatua and first right of refusal on excess Crown land, Te Ururoa Flavell over claims he may have influenced Maori TV to cancel a debate on Whanau Ora, Sam Lotu-Iiga over the management of the Mt Eden Corrections Facility and McCully.

Little is in danger of devaluing the importance of ministerial accountability by demanding resignations so often.