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John Campbell: Is NZ a country where we can accept the deaths of 29 people at work?

Whatever is or isn’t found up the drift in what was the Pike River Coal Mine - whatever evidence about the cause of that terrible explosion, whatever insight into what happened to the 29 men during it and immediately afterwards - today’s announcement that re-entry will be attempted is also about something larger than that.

On November 19 2010, eight years ago this coming Monday, 29 men died in an accident in a New Zealand workplace.

Read more: Anna Osborne tells John Campbell about eight-year fight for husband killed in Pike River disaster - 'you don't just leave your loved one behind'

We still do not know what caused that explosion, and the explosions that followed it, no one has ever been prosecuted for any of what occurred at Pike.

Mr Little outlined the Government’s plan in Wellington today, eight years after 29 men died in the mine. Source: Breakfast

The Supreme Court itself determined “that the decision of WorkSafe New Zealand to offer no evidence in the prosecution of Peter William Whittall was unlawful”, and the event has often been treated as a cyclone or an earthquake or an tsunami might be treated, as something beyond our control, almost as an act of God.

But Pike itself was man-made.

The systemic failures in the way mines in New Zealand were being inspected, the clearly problematic dismantling of the specialist mines inspectorate, the evidence the Royal Commission heard about “the culture of Pike River Coal Limited”, and “the pressure” workers felt “under because of the need to obtain coal”, all of that was man-made.

And today’s announcement is a response to that.

Twenty-nine people dying at work surely requires the most rigorous response we can give, to review whether their deaths could have been prevented, by better planning or better design or better care.

Otherwise, what are we saying about the workplace in this country? And what are we saying about the value of every person who goes to work?

People talk about “closure”, and the promises made that were so famously immortalised, in 2011, in a note left on the seal 170 metres up the drift.

Tony Kokshoorn spoke to Breakfast this morning about the mood in the West Coast following news of plans for re-entry. Source: Breakfast

It contained the words: “We will not rest and we will never give up. We will return.”

And people talk about the possibility that some human remains may be found, and men may be returned to their families, and all of that is so important.

But for people bewildered today about why an operation is being mounted, eight years after the men lost their lives inside that workplace, and for people unsure about its merits or its justifications, and for people using the term bullies - so often resorted to when there is no compelling rational argument to be made, “virtue signalling” - the universal ought to assert itself as much as the specific.

Is New Zealand a country in which 29 people can die at work and the cause can remain unknown?

Is New Zealand a country in which 29 people can die at work and evidence for a prosecution can remain untested?

Is New Zealand a country in which the Supreme Court can find WorkSafe (an organisation that exists, as its name suggests, to keep people safe at work) can act “unlawfully” in not offering evidence for a prosecution following 29 workplace deaths?

If Pike can be re-entered, it must be - John Campbell

And when world leading experts, including personnel who would be prepared to go in themselves, determine the drift can be re-entered “safely and feasibly”, and persuade Dave Gawn, Rob Fyfe and Andrew Little of that, the answer to those questions defines us as a nation.

If Pike can be re-entered, it must be.  

Not just for the 29 men and their families, but for every single person in this country, who has the reasonable right to expect they will be safe at work. And that if they’re not, anything that can feasibly and safely be done to find out what went wrong, will indeed be done.

That, surely, is what New Zealand would do. 

Milton Osborne was one of 29 men who never made it home from Pike River Mine in November 2010. Source: Breakfast