Opinion: Why action on Pike River is so important to this government

Political scientist Bryce Edwards explains why the Labour-New Zealand First Government is taking the Pike River issue so seriously.

The death of 29 men at the Pike River mine in 2010 has become a symbol of what is wrong with politics and economic power in our society. That’s why it’s so important for the new coalition government to deal with this difficult issue and put serious weight behind working towards a resolution. For a government of progressive and populist parties to do anything less would be to call their pro-worker credentials into question.

An outrageous tragedy

Given the time that has now passed, it’s easy for those of us at a distance from the tragedy to forget how utterly outrageous and scandalous Pike River was. What happened that day wasn’t some kind of natural disaster – it was a preventable accident caused by the unsafe business practices of the mine owner, which operated under extremely lax health and safety practices that previous National and Labour governments had implemented and subsequently failed to tighten up.

This was all verified by the release of the Pike River Royal Commission report back in 2012. The damning report was essentially a compendium of the political and corporate negligence.

The Commission’s report stated that the mine should never have been allowed to open. The minister responsible at that time was Parliament’s new Speaker, Trevor Mallard. But plenty of other government ministers from Labour and National were subsequently content to preside over the inadequate regulations that the Royal Commission were so officially scathing of. Both parties in government retained a regulation and inspection regime which allowed the industry’s profits-first approach to overshadow any proper regard for safety. And this led to the Pike River mine tragedy, as well as unsafe work environments in other sectors.

Why action on Pike River is so important for Labour and NZ First

Seven years on from the disaster, an anti-establishment mood is creeping into politics around the world. This is one reason Winston Peters’ campaign in recent years to enter the mine has resonated with the public. In volunteering to go down the mine himself, Peters was projecting the sort of pro-worker, anti-Establishment boldness we have seen from other populist and radical politicians around the world.

Political opponents and doubters with their “please just send him in” shtick scored a cheap laugh, but he wasn’t talking to them. Families, their supporters and the many New Zealanders who have always been uneasy, to say the least, with the Pike River disaster and its aftermath were buoyed.

Labour and New Zealand First have, by nature or design, at least partially tapped into the anti-establishment zeitgeist and, accordingly, have picked up on the need to do much more for the families of the Pike River mine victims.

It’s more than mere positioning, of course. Pike River is a bread and butter issue for any politician with a belief in the importance of workers’ rights and conditions. After all, the tragedy saw the killing of 29 workers who were not adequately protected by a profit-oriented company that was massively cutting corners when it came to safety.

And why was the New Zealand Labour Party established? Because of a miners’ strike on the West Coast in 1908. For parties with any pretence to advancing workers’ interests in 2017, the need to put things right over Pike River is symbolically and practically of the highest importance.

Furthermore, for parties like Labour and New Zealand First, who claim to stand for ordinary people in neglected regions like the West Coast, standing up against such injustice is a primary reason to be in government. And what better way to signal that this is a very different government to the last?

Doing something about the Pike River mine

On Monday, the coalition government announced the establishment of the new Pike River agency tasked with re-entering the mine. The agency will be set up in January, headed by a chief executive who will report to Andrew Little, the Minister Responsible for Pike River. It will receive funding of $23 million over three years.

Plenty of questions are being asked about what’s been announced: Is it enough? Would the money be better spent on something else? Will Labour and NZ First’s plans actually deliver on their pre-election pledges to enter the mine? Is their approach any different to National’s? Will the mine ever be safe for re-entry?

These questions are fair. But Pike River is bigger than that now. For many, it’s come to encapsulate what has been wrong with New Zealand in recent decades – a situation where corporate power and political ideologies created a disaster for working people. Therefore, it’s a litmus test for progressive politicians. They need to show they take the issue much more seriously than previous governments and that nothing is “too much” when it comes to putting things right.