John Armstrong gives Little and Labour a real serve over Pike River

John Armstrong, political commentator, on TVNZ News website has given the Pike River recovery and Andrew Little a real serve on this – basically saying Little’s role is to let the families down gently.

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.  

Labour is also seemingly ignoring the proclamations of the head of the EPMU back when the mine blew up…that there was nothing wrong and everything was above board…that guy was one A. Little.

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.

Winston is as cunning as a robber’s dog.

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.

My, how curious.

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.

So far I haven’t seen too much competence from this government.

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.

Then he can suffer the hounding and vitriol from the unhinged.

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.

This government is getting very good at back-flips.

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.

Add Winston Peters to the list of politicians who played with the emotions of the families.



Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.

As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.