John Armstrong's opinion: Pike River decision was about 'shabby posturing', not truth and justice

Andrew Little’s decision to give the go-ahead for a manned re-entry to the abandoned Pike River mine has been described by the families of those who perished in the tragedy as “an historic moment for truth and justice for all New Zealanders”.

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It’s been a long time coming not only for the families but for the people of Greymouth. Source: 1 NEWS

Well, for starters, you can count me out when it comes to being pigeonholed in such fashion.

Truth and justice? They cannot be serious. Little’s decision is in large part the product of some typically shabby posturing by Winston Peters in the run-up to last year’s election.

The veteran politician stunned his opponents by first declaring that New Zealand First was making re-entry to the ill-fated mine a non-negotiable bottom line that other parties would be obliged to swallow if they wanted to participate in government-formation talks with his party.

Peters then left his adversaries gasping even more by further announcing that he would be entering the mine in person once the required safety clearance had been given.

He made good on the first pledge. A commitment to re-entry is one of a host of items included in a “to do” list contained in his party’s coalition agreement with Labour.

It is most unlikely that he will have to do likewise when it comes to his second promise.

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Jacinda Ardern said she would have loved to have been there for the announcement. Source: 1 NEWS

Little is planning to lay down strict protocols as to who will be deemed as qualified enough to be given access to the mine’s workings.

Peters’ talk was an arrow fired straight into Labour’s heart. The party’s birthplace is on the Coast. Given the composition of the local workforce was skewed heavily towards a predominance of workers in industries which creamed off the region’s rich reserves of coal and minerals, Labour could take those voters for granted.

That all changed in the 1980s. Labour’s corporatisation policies and subsequent privatisation of state assets threw literally thousands out of their jobs.

Things have not been the same since. Labour is yoked with a large guilt complex. The Pike River families and their relatives have shown no qualms in exploiting it.

The decision by the first and hopefully only member of a Cabinet to be granted the title of Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry was thus hardly a surprise.

That does not change the fact that it was a bad decision.

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The re-entry is expected to begin in February next year. Source: 1 NEWS

Wednesday’s announcement was indeed a victory — a victory for emotion and sentiment over rationality and common sense.

One very awkward question — awkward for the families that is — lurked in the background of the wall-to-wall media coverage of the celebrations.

What right do the families have to put the lives of those who will re-enter the mine in coming months at risk in order — to use the official lingo — to give them and the other victims of the disaster “overdue closure and peace of mind”.

The Pike River Recovery Agency can mouth all the assurances it like about having a culture of “safety first”. It can chant its motto that “zero harm for everyone" being its non-negotiable bottom-line.

It might seem churlish to pour scorn on such a worthy declaration. But it is an objective. It is not a guarantee that those who enter the mine will be 100 per cent safe from harm.

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The Government is now convinced it has a safe option for getting inside the West Coast mine’s drift. Source: 1 NEWS

No one is in a position to give such a guarantee, not least the agency. The state entity can — and without doubt already has —wracked its collective brain in order to identify every conceivable risk and adverse scenario and taken the necessary precautions.

By its own admission, however, the agency has to take into account known risks which it cannot control — such as a re-entry team being trapped by a roof fall triggered by an earthquake — and what it terms as “unknowns”.

The agency will do its best to minimise the risk. But it is beyond its ability to eliminate risk completely.

As long as that is the case — which will be forever and a day — no-one should enter the mine to hunt for the remains of the 29 victims of the methane-fuelled explosion which ripped through the pit on a Friday afternoon in late 2010.

The logic might be brutal, but the conclusion is inescapable. It is intolerable that it is not impossible that the 29 could become 30 or more.

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The Deputy Prime Minster offered in 2016 to go down the mine, after 29 lives were lost in 2010. He repeated the line today. Source: 1 NEWS

To do what he should have done long ago and terminate this excursion into lunacy would leave Little open to accusations that he has frittered away $36 million in taxpayers’ funds with nothing to show for it.

Well, so be it.

The money is really by-the-by. The currency of Pike River is human lives. It is accordingly of major worry that the deeper the re-entry mission gets into the mine, the more intense will be the pressure on Little. from the families to go ever further.

If human remains are discovered in the “drift” —the 2.3 km-long tunnel from the mine’s entrance to the coal seams —there will be absolute pandemonium and a media frenzy to end all such frenzies.

It will become nigh on impossible for Little to call a halt to the operation even if the risk factor has increased exponentially.
That is similarly utterly unacceptable.

One of the few positives to emerge from Wednesday’s announcement was Little’s stern ticking off of Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse, whose relatives died in the tragedy, for suggesting they should be invited to enter the drift when it was deemed safe to do so.

Unfortunately, that example of Little saying “no” to the families seems to have been the exception that very much proves the rule.

Well, not quite. Little did highlight one piece of very sage advice offered up by the Pike River Recovery Agency.

Its officials warned that “there is a lot that we do not know and will not know until we are confronted with the situation as we find it underground”.

That would require the courage to say “no”... and knowing when to call it quits.

Little should quit while he is behind. Enough is enough.