Opinion: Andrew Little's real Pike River role is to let the families down gently

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

You will struggle to find a report written by mining experts or engineering consultants assessing the feasibility of sending a recovery mission into the abandoned Pike River coal mine which can claim to be truly independent.

Such doubts about motives have been deemed by supporters of re-entry to apply to the opinion expressed by the Mines Rescue Service on the wisdom of such action. 

Given the service has long been largely funded by levies paid by Solid Energy, it has not escaped suggestions that its stance is nothing more than pay-back to the state coal company whose board has been resolute in its refusal to countenance manned re-entry.

Despite such qualifications, however, you would similarly have to search high and low to uncover a verdict which is quite as germane to the current debate sparked by the unambiguous provision in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement to “commit to re-entry to Pike River”.

Replying to questions posed back in February by a parliamentary committee charged with examining Solid Energy’s abject performance, the service stated re-entry was “technically feasible”.

But it warned the “residual risk to life” of any operation mounted to find and recover remains of the 29 miners killed in the methane-fuelled explosion which ripped through the mine seven years ago remained “high”.

Until those risks had been reduced to an “acceptable” level, re-entry was not a task that the service was prepared to take in circumstances which were not an emergency.

That conclusion pulls the rug from under Labour and New Zealand First.

It leaves those parties wide open to charges that they are flirting with endangering workers’ lives.

Put to one side prosecutions being laid under the markedly tougher provisions in the rewritten Health and Safety Act were someone on a recovery mission to die in the mine.

Labour has been flagging that it has found a way of avoiding its potential Pike River antics falling foul of that law.

The party has not detailed how it might be able to do that. In rationalising such dubious behaviour, Labour seems blinkered to the fact that it is breaching the spirit of the law — something unconscionable for a party claiming to represent workers in dangerous occupations.

The stance taken by the rescue service is even more pertinent because the miners who will make up any recovery team will be members of that organisation.

The service would thus be failing in its duty of care were those miners to be thrown into an environment where the risk of death or serious injury is deemed to be unacceptably high.

No doubt there will be no shortage of volunteers for any recovery mission. But the service’s stance effectively rules out any such mission being deployed under its aegis.

Labour would be well-advised to take heed of the rescue service’s very carefully chosen words.

There are hints, however, that Labour is now starting to grasp the uncomfortable possibility that its promise to re-enter the mine has the capacity to turn into a political quagmire.

Winston Peters appears to be cognisant of the political dangers.

For someone who made re-entry a non-negotiable bottom-line in coalition talks, the Deputy Prime Minister was noticeable by his absence from the podium in the Beehive theatrette for Monday’s announcement by the Prime Minister detailing the next steps to be taken before a decision is finally made on re-entry.

Peters was also previously on record as willing to be one of the first to make it up the “drift” — the underground tunnel which stretches for more than 2km from the mine’s entrance to what were once its inner workings.

Peters might have had valid reason for his no-show. But it left the impression that he is now distancing himself and his party from something which he has already extracted maximum political dividend. Better to leave it all for Labour to sort it all out.

Monday’s announcement of the setting up of a stand-alone Pike River Recovery Agency might have looked like full-steam ahead from that quarter as Jacinda Ardern  triumphantly ticked off yet another item on Labour’s first 100 days action plan as “done”.

In fact, it was closer to half-speed astern. 

Within days of his appointment as the Pike River re-entry minister, Andrew Little was suggesting a recovery mission would have gone into the mine by the time next April rolled around. 

He was similarly insistent that a manned entry was the priority and he was not going to hang around waiting for information which might be gleaned from Solid Energy’s preference for deploying robots into the mine. 

That timetable has suddenly been pushed out another 12 months to April 2019.

The gung-ho nonchalance displayed by Ardern and Little during September’s election campaign in opening such a potential can of worms has evaporated and replaced by the pair addressing the prime issue of safety.

The dilemma facing Little, who will make the final decision on re-entry, is that risk assessments by Solid Energy listed a number of potential “high consequence, low likelihood” events which prompted the company to rule out a recovery operation.

These range from ignition of gas, collapse of tunnels trapping the team, respiratory failure and even the crash of a helicopter removing spill from a new ventilation shaft. 

In other words, while there might be a low probability of something going wrong, if something did go wrong, it would do so big time in terms of serious injury or even deaths.

Labour’s sudden nervousness is evident in the designation of Little as the minister who will alone determine whether to go ahead with any recovery plan —rather than following the standard practice of the Cabinet making a collective decision.

The intention is obvious. If Little gets it wrong, other ministers will be able to distance themselves and the Government as a whole from what will be an almighty mess.

That sounds good in theory. In practice, any such calamity will see Labour pilloried by the public and media. It would go to the very heart of the coalition Government’s competence.

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.

As the saying goes, as you sow, so shall you reap.