Friday, December 10, 2010

Legislation and culpability: Another angle on Pike River

It is good to see the New Zealand Herald picking up the issue about how legislation motivated by cutting expenses to the government's revenue purse may have something to answer for at Pike River. Today's story of how a well-respected West Coast mining inspector had warned about the risk of a deadly explosion after politicians dismantled the industry's safely regime refers to the repeal of the Coal Mines Act in the early 1990s.

A now-deceased mining inspector, Mr Billy Brazil, responsible for the area that contains the Pike River Mine, wrote a submission in the wake of the repeal of the Act--which meant that the mining industry had in effect become "self-regulating". Mr Brazil's submission in 1995 included the following reported statements:

"The Government must act immediately to restore our legislation before another Kaitangata Disaster" [a reference to a 1879 explosion that killed 34 miners].

"Miners in this country have good reason to ask of themselves as to whether the fortunes of the industry have been thrown open to the ever-present chance, or circumstance, in the lead-up to the next potential Kaitangata disaster."

Mr Brazil also wrote that the previous mining legislation had been "literally written and paid for in blood".

Fifteen years later his submission takes on tragic proportions.

If only this were not a trope for so much more. Meanwhile, politicians most everywhere favour deeper tax cuts and, hence, still less funding for supporting those most at risk. If attaining the status of being self-regulating brought with it the obligations to match or better pre-existing arrangements the tax savings would indeed be an advantage to ordinary people.

This is not to say that the Pike River Mine hasn't met the kind of obligations that would properly accompany self-regulation. We can only hope that they had. It will not bring the miners back, but it would at least mean that their lives were not lost as a consequence of company failure. Whether that absolves the politicians is, of course, another matter.

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