Chris Trotter on Pike River

Chris Trotter is holding Labour accountable for Pike River, much more so than National:

[T]his 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?

Trevor Mallard isn’t too happy about that either…but Trotter goes on.

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?

Two of them are still in parliament, perhaps they might to atone by resigning?

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.

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.

If anyone is responsible then it falls to Helen Clark and her ministers, from the Labour ministers listed above to the Conservation minister who cared more about two Blue Ducks than 29 miners lives.


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  • phronesis

    I still don’t get this claim that anyone in the government is responsible for this cockup. Even my lefty mates can see that having a bureaucrat who probably has an arts degree tell you how to do your skilled labouring job is a complete waste of time. Many of these miners have been doing it for generations. The skill they have is in doing it safely, any idiot can dig a hole but digging a really deep hole safely requires skill and an understanding of the risks. If anything this accident happened because they fell for the idea that somebody else would look after them down there. The reality was that they were better qualified to assess the risks than some bureaucrat in wellington was ever going to be.

    The answer to occupational safety and health is compulsory disability / life insurance for workers. Let the insurers decide what the risk is and charge accordingly, thus motivating improvements in safety.

    • I mostly agree. The govt can only do so much and frankly, I think where OSH is concerned they have done more than enough.

      Re “The answer to occupational safety and health…compulsory insurance”. I’m not so sure. We have ACC plus, there is OSH requirements gallore in this country. If you proposed canceling ACC so it was all private then yep, I’d agree. But under the current model no.

      The only reason why workplace accidents happen is become someone took their eye of the 8th ball and didnt do the job they were meant to do. Pike River was very sad, but those working with the mine day.

      Once again we are plagued with a mass ignorance in terms of knowing how to take responsibility for your own lives, your own choices and your own risks.

    • It is the government RMA restricting safe opencast mining. For this we can blame National, then Labour and last but not least The Greens.

  • Sir Cullen’s Sidekick

    According to Sheep, the tragedy happened while National is in power so it is National’s responsibility.