Opinion: The 440-page report of the inquiry into the Pike
River mine disaster is an exemplary piece of work - thorough,
comprehensive, rigorous and surely one of the most
hard-hitting produced by a royal commission.
The report cuts a lot deeper, however, than simply fulfilling
the commission's prime task of apportioning responsibility
for the loss of 29 lives.
The ramifications of the inquiry's findings are potentially
huge. They stretch way beyond a drastic and belated
tightening up of health and safety regimes and inspections of
underground coal mines.
Because large chunks of the report deal with the adequacy of
regulations, the commission's conclusions have relevancy not
just for health and safety practices in other accident-prone
industries, but beyond.
There cannot be a single chief executive of any government
department who has not pondered this week whether the
regulatory regimes underpinning their department's operations
are working effectively, be it gambling licences,
telecommunications policy or whatever.
In highlighting the decline of the Department of Labour's
coal mining inspectorate in terms of staffing and expertise
to the point where it could no longer do its job, the report
places big question marks over the wisdom of the deregulatory
thrust of the 1990s which placed much more onus and
obligations on employers to comply with health and safety
It is here that the report may have major influence on
political behaviour and bureaucratic practice.
It confronts the kind of blinkered ideological mindset which
decrees there is one way only of doing things.
What the royal commission has essentially stated is that such
a "one size fits all approach" should not have been applied
to the hazardous conditions of underground mining.
That National was wedded to deregulation and Labour did
little in terms of reversing it should have prompted MPs from
both parties to have kept their heads down this week.
Not so in Labour's case, however. Its frustration was that
Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson did not follow the usual
script of a minister in trouble.
Instead of dragging out the agony - as was the case with Nick
Smith's departure from the Cabinet earlier this year - Ms
Wilkinson announced she was "doing the honourable thing" and
resigning just as the embargo was being lifted on publication
of the royal commission's report.
The net result was Opposition parties could not spend the
rest of the week demanding heads had to roll when one had
The sense of anti-climax was accentuated by David Shearer
saying Labour would accept its share of responsibility. This
might have been the sensible tack for Labour to take.
But the Labour leader's gesture was obviously too namby-pamby
for the likes of Trevor Mallard and Damien O'Connor, who
spent the rest of the week conducting an unseemly show trial
of Ms Wilkinson in her absence.
Mr Mallard and Mr O'Connor had points to prove. As minister
of labour in the latter stages of the last Labour government,
Mr Mallard might have been excused raising his eyebrows at Dr
Mr Mallard wanted it known that as minister he had initiated
a review of mine safety following two mining-related deaths
in 2006. Ms Wilkinson inherited that review with the change
of government in 2008 and did nothing of note in response.
However, this raking over the coals, so to speak, only
highlighted the fact Labour was also complicit in the rundown
of the mining inspectorate during its term of office.
The crux of the commission's report is that an effective
regulator would have acted more decisively at Pike River and
probably would have issued a prohibition notice stopping the
methane-accumulating hydro mining which the company began two
months before the disaster.
Mr O'Connor, the West Coast-Tasman MP, persisted in targeting
Ms Wilkinson by demanding National explain she was still a
Deputy Prime Minister Bill English pointed out that Ms
Wilkinson had taken responsibility for the failings of her
That was more than could be said of Mr O'Connor who, as
corrections minister in the last Labour government, had
refused to resign after the disgraceful incident of
17-year-old Liam Ashley being beaten to death in the back of
a prison van.
His own goal aside, Mr O'Connor's question was a good one. If
Ms Wilkinson has fallen on her sword, it seems to have been
one of those inflatable ones which cushioned her from
dropping her other portfolios of conservation and food safety
and thereby losing her minister's salary and other perks.
There has been a rash of ministerial resignations during
Helen Clark's and John Key's prime ministerships. But these
have all been the outcome of personal failings unrelated to
Resignations flowing from "culpable" individual ministerial
responsibility - the result of action or inaction by a
minister's department - is comparatively rare. The previous
case was conservation minister Denis Marshall in 1996
following the Cave Creek tragedy. He also kept his other
portfolios and remained a cabinet minister.
Unlike Ms Wilkinson, Mr Marshall initially clung on to his
conservation job, claiming he needed to fix the "systemic"
problems revealed by the inquiry into the collapse of the
viewing platform at the West Coast reserve. Ms Wilkinson did
not make that mistake.
Mr Marshall's name is forever associated with the deaths at
Cave Creek. Ms Wilkinson will likewise be punished for mostly
being remembered as the minister who resigned over Pike
Mr Marshall's resignation set a precedent which meant Ms
Wilkinson had to go if the royal commission found her
department culpable even though she was not to blame for
decisions made or not made.
There have been murmurings that Paula Bennett should
similarly lose her job over the information kiosk- related
privacy breach at Work and Income.
Consitutional lawyers, however, argue that a minister is not
responsible for everything their officials do or do not do.
Whether a minister stays or goes is a matter of political
judgement for the prime minister.
In short, there are no fixed rules as to when a minister
should resign. But it is always obvious when it has to
John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political