John Armstrong: Pike River re-entry never going to happen

When it comes to the vexed question of whether the families of the men killed in the Pike River disaster will be granted permission to recover the bodies of their loved ones, you can forget it.

Source: 1 NEWS

It ain't going to happen. Not now. Not ever. Full stop.

Winston Peters would argue that such pessimism is no longer justified; that the family's cause is not a hopeless cause; that he will do the utmost within his power to end the ban on re-entry to the mine imposed by Solid Energy, the state-managed coal company which now owns what remains of the mine.

Peters has pledged to make the mine re-entry non-negotiable in any coalition deal but English says it's a legal, not a political decision. Source: 1 NEWS

Displaying the kind of showmanship which makes many people rate him as a political maestro, Peters has even offered to be the first to go back into the condemned mine.

In order to persuade the doubters who are not swayed by such bravado, he has declared re-entry to the mine will be a non-negotiable "bottom-line" for New Zealand First in coalition talks following this year's election.

It sounds impressive. On closer inspection, however, that assurance melts away.

It is not worth the paper it has yet to be written upon.

It is neither in National's nor Labour's interests to allow Peters to impose bottom-lines which compromise their flexibility in coalition negotiations.

The two major parties have an unspoken pact to ignore such attempts by Peters to predetermine election outcomes before the people have voted.

Having backed away from John Key's promise to do everything he could to remove the bodies, National is now adamant that re-entering the mine is far too dangerous.

National is saying it will have no truck with Peters' bottom-line. There is thus no need for Labour to accept Peters' ultimatum which would see the major Opposition party paint itself into a corner.

Labour's roots in the mining communities on the West Coast require the party to strike a balance between showing sympathy with the plight of the families and the risks entailed in recovering the bodies.

Labour's preferred method to extricate itself from this conundrum is to promise the families that should it become the Government, it will commission (yet another) independent report on the feasibility of re-entering the mine.

Andrew Little says if experts gave the re-entry green light, Labour would fund it. Source: Breakfast

This buys Labour time. But not much else.

When it comes to Pike River, the real bottom-line is that no politician wants to be the Cabinet minister whose glittering political career ended in resignation following the injury or deaths suffered by a recovery mission sent into the mine to extricate the bodies or what remains of them.

Unless such a mission was guaranteed to be 100 per cent safe - something which would be impossible to prove - any government countenancing that mission would be deemed to run the gamut of criticism between being seen as stupid and being seen as unbelievably stupid.

All that presumes politicians would have the whole say in the matter.

They wouldn't. Even were Solid Energy to have a rush of blood to its head and reverse its current intention to seal the mine's entrance for good and instead allow a recovery operation to be mounted, the company's managers would find a prohibition order slapped on them by WorkSafe New Zealand, the Crown agency responsible for administering the new and much tougher law now covering occupational health and safety.

Such an order can be imposed if WorkSafe believes something is occurring at a workplace that "involves or will involve" serious risk to the health or safety of a person.

If such an order was ignored, WorkSafe would have the power to seek a District Court directive that Solid Energy comply with the prohibition order.

It needs to be remembered that the rewrite of occupational health and safety law flowed directly from the Pike River Company's failures to ensure its workers did not come to harm.

To treat the Pike River mine site as suddenly exempt from the very piece of law it engendered is not just utterly mind-blowing. It is delusional.

It is why re-entry can't and won't happen.

That may be very difficult for the Pike River families to stomach.

But they need to be mindful of one very important thing. Allowing their suffering to become the plaything of politicians is a very uncertain business - especially when those politicians' influence is more an illusion than fact.

The families would do well to remember the biblical warning to beware of false prophets bearing gifts.