For the sake of the other families

December 5, 2017

Each time I read or hear reports about Pike River families agitating for a retrieval of the bodies of the men who were killed there I wonder about the other families.

You’d not know it from most reports, but some of the bereaved families have accepted that their men are dead and the mine where they died will be their grave.

How hard it must be for them to get on with their lives when time and time again the disaster and the ongoing saga of re-entry hit the headlines.

The latest news is that the liability for anything that goes wrong in a re-entry will like with the Pike River chief executive, not the Minister for Pike River, Andrew Little.

Documents on the Pike River Recovery Agency show that while the Minister will decide whether a re-entry goes ahead, it will be the agency’s chief executive who will be liable if any re-entry goes wrong, National Party Workplace Relations Spokesperson Amy Adams says.

“This Government has continued to make entering Pike River a political decision but this is patently wrong. While there’s been lots of talk about how Mr Little will be responsible for his decisions, it will be some poor senior public servant who carries the can.

“It is wrong to put a Chief Executive in this position. He or she will have to carry out what their political masters decide in a very unsafe environment. Why would any sensible person put their hand up for that job?”

Sensible or not, a CE would have to resign rather than carry out a directive in the knowledge he or she was putting lives at risk.

Ms Adams says the Coalition went against official advice which was to make the final decision-maker independent of politicians.

“That would have been the responsible approach which fairly reflected the dangers of re-entering the mine. This undermines the very health and safety laws which were strengthened in the wake of the Pike River disaster to try and ensure it never happens again.”

The one good thing to come out of the disaster was the strengthening of health and safety laws. It would be a travesty if they were to be breached by order of a politician.

Ms Adams also notes that the mission of the agency has changed from the Government’s pre-election commitments.

“Up until now all their talk has been about manned re-entry into the mine. Now the papers tell us it’s about achieving manned re-entry of the drift only, all bar 400 metres of which has already been explored.”

The families’ quest for answers is understandable but that quest can’t risk more lives.

John Armstrong writes that Little’s real role as Minister is to let the families down gently:

Little will have to judge what level of risk is acceptable. The answer to that question has been staring Labour in the face. The answer is none.

It is both morally reprehensible and incomprehensibly stupid to place another human being in an environment where death and injury have already proved to be beyond human control.

Rather than humming the Red Flag in solidarity with the miners’ families, Little should be engaged in quiet persuasion that their wish to be reunited with their loved ones risks others’ loved ones suffering the same fate.

At most —and purely to save everyone’s face — a recovery team might be permitted to go part way up the drift.

For his own and Labour’s sake, the minister responsible for Pike River Re-entry needs to become the minister for No Re-Entry to Pike River, if not in name then most definitely in actions.

It is his job to gently puncture the over-inflated hopes of the families.

He needs to get the families to take ownership of the reality that re-entry cannot be a happening thing. He needs to lull them into believing they made the decision —not him nor a faceless bureaucrat chosen to run the Pike River Recovery Agency.

Executing what would be the Mother of All U-turns will require some very deft politics on Little’s part.

Thursday’s Supreme Court’s ruling that WorkSafe’s decision to withdraw its prosecution of Pike River mine boss Peter Whittall, in exchange for payments to the victims’ families, was unlawful provides an unexpected opportunity for everyone to come to their senses.

The families should rejoice in at last receiving the justice so long denied them. They should view it as a cue to drop their demand for re-entry.

That won’t happen. The families are victims alright. They are victims of politicians who have exploited their emotions without caring one jot for the consequences.

There can be no sympathy for Little even if he has deluded himself into believing he is doing the right thing by the families. . . 

The right thing by all the families is to accept, as some of them have, that the risks of re-entry are too high.

A former union head, in what’s supposed to be the workers’ party should know that safety is paramount and each new announcement is a move in that direction.

Each new announcement from the government is a step away from the original irresponsible rhetoric of unconditional re-entry.

Each new announcement includes ifs, buts and acknowledgements that safety must come first.

The honourable and sensible course of action now would be to admit that no-one can guarantee that re-entry would be safe and in doing so to help those families still stuck in the early stages of grief to accept, as the others have, that the mine where their men died is their grave.

When my first son died we waited months for the post mortem results. He’d been dead for longer than he’d lived when they finally arrived and they were somewhat of an anti-climax.

That was partly because we’d hoped the post-mortem might uncover some clues to the condition which killed him that the numerous tests during his life had not and it didn’t.  But it was also because it made me realise that regardless of what the report said, he was still dead and nothing could make that better.

The death of a baby as a result of illness for which no-one was to blame, is different in many ways from deaths in an unsafe workplace for which someone should have, but has not, been held responsible.

But no matter how it happens, death is death and it only compounds the loss if those who survive are stuck, focusing on what they’ve lost and in doing so losing what they’ve got.

Continuing to pretend that a re-entry would be possible is continuing to perpetuate a lie and it’s helping to keep some of the families stuck.

For their sakes and the sakes of the other fmailies who are no longer stuck, the government needs to be honest, stop wasting money and prolonging the inevitable announcement that any risk of life is too high.


What I said, what I meant

September 5, 2010

In the Bloggerheads spot on Q&A this morning I said:

It’s not a taxpayer bail out. It’s not north saving  south, urban paying rural.

People who lent to and borrowed from South Canterbury Finance came from all over the country. Only those covered by the Deposit Guarantee scheme will get their money back.

Receivership will enable an orderly sale of assets to minimise the eventual cost and damage to the wider economy.

 The government made the right decision over a business that went badly wrong.

 When I said it’s not a tax payer bailout I meant that the company wasn’t being bailed out.

But the depositors are and the taxpayer will end up paying under the Deposit Guarantee Scheme.

Fees – taken from the big banks not finance companies – will cover some of the cost. The return on the sale of the company assets – as a whole or n pieces – will recoup a lot of money but no-one is expecting that to cover all that’s owing.

John Armstrong asks:

Was it fair that finance companies were included when the scheme was rushed into existence in October 2008 during the darkest hours of the global banking crisis and the last days of the Labour Administration?

Was it fair that finance companies still afloat then got protection while investors in those that had already crashed got nothing? Was it fair that some people had subsequently invested money in finance companies to exploit the Government guarantee?

Possibly not to the first question and definitely not to the second.

The exposure of flaws in the deposit guarantee scheme provoked demands they be called to account for failing to rectify them. . . .

While much has been made of the approval of that extension, it is essentially irrelevant. The Government was obliged to pay out the $1.6 billion to depositors because South Canterbury Finance is still covered by the original two-year scheme which has run from October 2008.

The Crown could have withdrawn its guarantee earlier if it considered there was misconduct on the part of the company or a material change in its financial position for the worse.

But the Government would still have had to pay out investors after the company inevitably defaulted as a result of the guarantee being withdrawn. Some money would have been saved. However, the Government gambled on the appointment of restructuring guru Sandy Maier as chief executive to get large portions of the company back on a sound footing. The gamble failed. But it was surely worth a go.

The simple truth is that once South Canterbury Finance was under the umbrella of the deposit guarantee scheme, the taxpayer liability was there for as long as the scheme was in place.

There are grounds for arguing the scheme has been in place too long. But that is from the benefit of hindsight.

. . . Both main parties – Labour in setting up the scheme and National this week in seeking to minimise both the cost to the taxpayer and the economic fallout – have sought to act in the national interest.

Yet, no one – apart from those who creamed it on the back of the Government guarantee – is happy. The Government is the convenient whipping boy.

It is and that’s why people accusing National of acting in the interests of supporters is tosh.

People who get their money back not only come from all around New Zealand they’ll have a variety of political persuasions and they are far fewer in number than the rest of the populace who are aggrieved. 

There are far more votes to be lost than gained from this.

But when you’re in government you don’t get to pick your fights. You have to deal with what comes up and make decisions based on the best information available.

Sometimes that will be politically popular, much of the time it won’t and this one definitely isn’t.


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