Friday, November 9, 2012

Trotter on Pike River

We've only seen snippets of the Pike River Royal Commission report so far. We'll try and have a decent read over the weekend, and comment then when we are better informed. But it was pleasing to see Kate Wilkinson do the honourable thing and resign as Minister of Labour immediately after the public release of the report.

Unsurprisingly though, Chris Trotter has strong opinions on the whole affair which he has expressed in his weekly column. Via the Dom-Post and under the heading Labour shares Pike River guilt, Trotter opines:

It was a spark igniting lethal levels of methane gas that killed the 29 Pike River miners two years ago.
But, as the grim report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy makes clear, the immediate cause of the disaster is of less interest than the manifold failures that allowed the spark and the gas to meet.
Other New Zealanders will write about the failure of Pike River Coal Company to adequately care for its employees' safety.
Much will be said about the bureaucratic failings of the Labour Department.
There will be critical scrutiny of the National Government's decision to disband the mines inspectorate.
But this column is written from the Left, so my focus will be on the party of the workers; the party whose founders came from the West Coast pits around Blackball; the party of the coalminers' trade unions; the party which for nine long years did nothing to prevent the tragedy which, in such a criminally deregulated environment, was only ever a matter of time.
Labour took control of New Zealand's state apparatus on November 27, 1999, and relinquished it on November 8, 2008.
During that time three Labour MPs held the labour portfolio: Margaret Wilson (1999-2004), Ruth Dyson (2005-07) and Trevor Mallard (2007-08).
All three of these politicians came into Parliament with strong Left-wing credentials.
And all of them, I'm sure, wanted to do only good things for the people they represented.
How, then, are we to explain their inaction? Their failure to impose a state-of-the-art health and safety regime on New Zealand's coalmining industry?

Trotter asks a very pertinent question here; Labour has nine years in office to clean up the mining industry, but seems to have chosen not to. And that is significant, as Chris Trotter notes:

Throughout the 19th century, the dangers facing workers underground and the disasters which so regularly took their lives provided a powerful moral impetus for labour movements all over the world – including New Zealand's.
In 2007, workers' safety campaigner Hazel Armstrong wrote: "The 1890s' West Coast coalfields have been evocatively described as a 'slough of despond'.
"They were notoriously hazardous working environments: 'There's always blood on the coal', miners said."
It's why the story of Paddy Webb's 1908 fight for the Blackball miners' rights became as ingrained as coal-dust in the political memory of Labour Party people.
How could three successive Labour ministers have forgotten so much?
The late Bruce Jesson offers a plausible explanation in his 1999 book Only Their Purpose Is Mad: "Somehow or other, the politicians ... had been persuaded that politics is an irrational and harmful activity.
"This followed from the firmly held Treasury belief that the marketplace is the source of rational behaviour ... It is assumed that politicians will always bring an irrational influence to bear on events, not just because they are irrational, but simply because they come from outside the marketplace."
This became an article of faith for the "Rogernomes" of the fourth Labour Government, and in spite of the many ideological and electoral challenges of the 1990s (not least from the Alliance and NZ First), it remained the core assumption of most members of Helen Clark's Cabinet.
There was no appetite in the Clark-led Labour Government for a return to the "heavy-handed" regulations of the past. As the source of rational behaviour, the market was still considered uniquely capable of regulating itself.
Tragically, it has taken the Pike River disaster to expose the fatal falsity of that belief.

Trotter is pretty severe on the Labour Party, but then again, that's nothing new. When Lange, Douglas et al took their Great Leap to the Right in 1984, it was the likes of Trotter and the cloth cap brigade that Labour alienated. The party's biggest issue now is how to once again win the heart of the working man or woman, so aptly described by Trotter as Waitakere Man.

But Trotter's final bite at Labour is the harshest; here's how he concludes:

Following the royal commission report's release, Labour leader David Shearer was asked if he thought the deregulatory pendulum had swung too far. He responded by saying that, "the Government needs to be much more hands-on than it has been".
It is to be hoped that these words reflect a genuine change of heart on Labour's part, and that the next time they're in office, Labour politicians will not hesitate to prevent the private sector's "drive for production" (and profits) from pushing workers' rights to effective workplace protection off the agenda.
Because if there's "blood on the coal" at Pike River, Labour helped to put it there. 


Edward the Confessor said...

So workers being killed under National governments is understandable because that's what they and the private sector do. Everyone should blame a party not actually in government when the tragedy happened. Nice.

Bunk said...

Eddie, why then after 9 years of taxing the bejesus out of the middle class and presiding over NZ while the world boomed didn't your beloved Labour not emerge from its time with a state of the art mining industry? Spending the surpluses on buying elections and buying white elephants like kiwi rail the tip of that iceberg. By the way, who was in govt when the mine's "unsafe design and systems" were approved?

Rhyming Rodney said...

Kate Wilkinson accepted responsibility on behalf of National and resigned.

Keeping Stock blamed Labour and whined.

Edward the Confessor said...

You saying the government should have invested directly in coal mining Bunk. I had no idea you were a communist.

The mine was opened by fat Gerry. Bit difficult to blame the previous administration for the disaster when the mine only ever operated under the Nats. Won't stop you trying though.

Natbiter said...

Pike River, it's management, it's cover-ups, it's environmental effects and it's fate, typify this John Key/John Banks government - a disaster in so many ways.

Bunk said...

Mines don't just pop up over night Eddie, if you are going to use comments like people dieing under National govt's then let's look for a moment at planning, approvals, consents and design - all if which occurred on Labour's watch and while we are at it the role played by Chris Carter

Just to clarify your confusion, if I am a communist I expect you to be running for ACT

Keeping Stock said...

@ Bunk - if Edward and Natbiter don't like this post, then they're going to HATE the one I'm just putting the finishing touches to!

Edward the Confessor said...

"Just to clarify your confusion, if I am a communist I expect you to be running for ACT..."

You're the one who wants to use taxpayers' money to create a state of the art mining industry. Commie.

Gerry opened the mine, Wilkinson oversaw its safety (not). End of story.

Bunk said...

Oh Eddie, let's not stoop to name calling shall we? You can't say end of story when this mine was approved on comrade Helen's watch. Or was it that Chris Carter was too busy on his numerous taxpayer funded junkets to do his job?

Keeping Stock said...

Dead right Bunk; Edward is confused, as is often his wont. Have a read of this:

Approvals history

The mine has a development and consenting history going back to the 1970s, with the first geologists and surveyors having explored the area in the 1940s. The mine is located approximately halfway between Greymouth and Reefton, close to the Pike Stream, a tributary of the Big River in a region that already has a long history of coal- and gold-mining activity. It is located on Crown land administered by the Department of Conservation, and adjacent to the Paparoa National Park.[3][4] Because of the status of the land, Pike River Coal Ltd had to obtain the Minister of Conservation's agreement to an access arrangement for mining under Section 61(2) of the Crown Minerals Act 2001.[7]

On 12 March 2004, Minister of Conservation Chris Carter approved the access arrangement for Pike River Coal Ltd. The arrangement included four 1.5-metre (4.9 ft)-wide emergency escape shafts within the boundaries of Paparoa National Park and a requirement for Pike River Coal Ltd to spend NZ$70,000 annually on conservation projects. Carter stated that the "safeguards and compensation" outweighed the inconsistencies with objectives of the Conservation Act 1987 and the relevant management plans.[8]

Due to the location, the conditions of the access arrangement included special considerations for the environment, such as minimising tree felling and a requirement to reinstate all above-ground areas after the cessation of mining.[3][4] Opponents of the mine strongly criticised the approval of the access agreement, noting that the coal is not intended for domestic use but simply a commercial operation, and thus should not have been allowed to go forward in a sensitive location. Forest & Bird also criticised the fact that the Minister of Conservation chose to ignore the report from the Department of Conservation stating that the mine would be damaging to the local environment.[2][9] Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand also criticised the project for furthering the use of fossil fuels instead of developing sustainable alternatives.[2]
Mine operation

In October 2008, coal production started and in November 2008, Gerry Brownlee, the Minister of Energy and Resources and Minister for Economic Development, formally opened the mine.[10] However, production was slow initially, and took until 2009/2010 to reach significant levels.[5]

Coal production started in October 2008. National swept to power on 8 November 2008, after the General Election. Gerry Brownlee may indeed have conducted the ceremonial opening, but Pike River opened for business on Labour's watch.

Bunk said...

Eddie, Eddie, where fore art thou Eddie?