Opinion: Pike River lessons hard despite Wilkinson's soft exit

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 standards.

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 toppled already.

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 Shearer's stance.

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 cabinet minister.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English pointed out that Ms Wilkinson had taken responsibility for the failings of her department.

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 portfolio responsibilities.

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 River.

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 happen.

John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.


Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter