At the Pike River memorial service held at our local racecourse on a hot, still day in the weeks following the disaster, Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn, who has often had the knack of putting his finger exactly on how our local community is feeling, referred to the Paparoa Ranges towering beside us as “our cathedral”.
That metaphor, surprising as it was, has felt completely right to me. I have spent a lot of time in the Paparoas, either on foot or on my bike. It has always been a special place, but the feeling of being there has changed forever.
The next time I was walking up into those hills, the following January, struggling with overwhelming feelings of grief and anger in equal measure, I took a broken call on my mobile urging me to get back to town as quickly as I could on account of a surprise public announcement expected to be made about Pike River.
It was the announcement that re-entry of the mine was going to be very unlikely and that control of it was therefore being passed from Police to the Pike River receivers. It was a poorly managed announcement that left families and journalists alike very confused. I was initially flummoxed – how could Government withdraw with 29 bodies still not recovered underground? This quickly gave way to anger when it seemed to me that an implication of the decision was that the men would only now be recovered incidental on a commercial decision to resume mining. So it has proved.
Good on the Pike River families for doing whatever they can to push for the recovery of the remains of their loved ones. But they shouldn’t have had to. I believe most people would have expected the Government to do whatever it could to effect recovery. Their failure to do so, and their prioritisation of commercial considerations over human ones have been nothing short of shameful.
In the first week or so after the first explosion, a bunch of Government Ministers, notably Gerry Brownlee, did a great job of fronting up and sincerely representing the New Zealand public. Sadly, since that time Government has mostly struggled to understand the right things to do, or to do them. Government eventually did move to establish the High Hazards Unit and to commence a review of occupational health and safety legislation and regulations, but only after saying day after day in the House, in response to my questions, that they wouldn’t do either until the Royal Commission reported. The Minister eventually resigned, but only from the Labour portfolio and at least a year after the catastrophic failures of her department had already become clear. That same department, at precisely the time that its extreme and multiple errors were being in detailed every day in evidence to the Royal Commission, chose not even to investigate its own role in the tragedy, let alone prosecute itself, as it was mandated to do.
The Royal Commission report has been the sole bright light in the two years since the disaster. I was a submitter to the inquiry myself, and sat in on much of the evidence. I think it’s fair to say that for all of us who listened to that evidence it was an unforgettable experience. Every day brought fresh revelations about astonishing errors of commission and omission by the Pike River Coal company itself, at every level, and by the Department of Labour. But every day also brought a small number of questions and comments from the Commissioners that indicated they too had understood this.
The Royal Commission’s report is outstanding, and all of its recommendations deserve to be implemented without delay or modification. The report is also a triumph for the evidence of Dr. Kathleen Callaghan, a witness called by the Pike River families. Dr Callaghan is an expert in, essentially, how human beings come to make mistakes. She was very clear in listing many, many factors known to cause risk of error that were issues at Pike River. She also outlined the importance of focusing not just on the immediate causes of what went wrong, but on the “causes of the causes”. The further ‘upstream’ we intervene, the wider the range of future ‘accidents’ that can be prevented. The value of Dr Callaghan’s evidence is reflected in the Royal Commission’s recommendations, which do, indeed, focus upstream.
John Key has responded by saying that the Government will implement “the vast bulk” of the recommendations. The more cynical amongst us will have thought that he means by this that the Government will implement the recommendations to the extent that it can’t get away with not doing so. Mr Key unfortunately strengthened this impression in his answers to my questions in the House about the role of deregulation, where he seemed not to have grasped this central thrust of the Royal Commission report: that deregulation had created an environment where Pike River Coal could get away with a mine that was lethally dangerous in many respects.
Acting Minister of Labour, Chris Finlayson, in contrast, did seem to understand what the Royal Commission had been saying. He acknowledged my suggestion of a cross-party group to oversee implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations. Today would be a good day to establish such a group.