Pike River a show of profits before safety

22:55, Nov 07 2012

One my heroes as a schoolgirl was the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury.

Against my normal inclination, I admire this 19th century aristocrat still. And more so this week.

The man was decent, philanthropic and purposeful. In the country of Charles Dickens and other outraged social reformers he was a tireless advocate of admirable causes. Shaftesbury championed the mentally ill, child workers, boy chimney sweeps and education for the poor, plugging away against vigorous opposition until the working world began to become a kinder and safer place.

Known as the Poor Man's Earl, he refused burial in Westminster Abbey and when he died the poor lined the streets to see his coffin pass.

There is a memorial to him in Piccadilly Circus in London.

Like every other modern person, I've seen it, and assumed it was a figure of Eros, the god of erotic love.


But its real name is the Angel of Christian Charity, which says a lot about how times change.

The surprise in all this is that Shaftesbury was a Tory. He belonged to the world of the privileged but defended the poor, the defenceless and the exploited. You'd look hard for someone of his kind today, in a world when life is not much better, probably, than it was in Victorian England for most people worldwide.

That brings me to the Pike River tragedy and the royal commission's findings. It's a glaring example of what happens when you take your mind off the most basic duty of all businesses (and all governments): To deliver safety before profits.

To think that 29 sons, fathers and husbands died ultimately because of what some idiots promoted as reform is a chilling indictment on this country's period of madness.

It was the profit motive that had children as young as 4 crawling underground in unlit 19th century English mines, had them toiling in factories and working as child sweeps sold into the trade by their parents, prompting Shaftesbury to demand that no child under 9 years old should be in the workplace.

The profit motive, which we have revived as a core benchmark of merit, had everyone working inhuman hours back then to boost the industrial revolution, rapidly making the English rich incredibly rich and the English poor incredibly poor.

I hate to say that I see something similar happening today, but tell me I'm wrong. There may be such a thing as benevolent capitalism, but it must never be assumed. It may be good for everyone if a few people are very, very rich while many are very, very poor, but I have the proof.

In the fever of deregulation that we imagined meant good things would happen, we also changed building regulations, resulting in a housing catastrophe that we seem unwilling to confront and which will roll on for years to come, ruining people who bought homes in good faith.

That is why this week I commend Kate Wilkinson for resigning as labour minister. She wasn't directly responsible for what happened at Pike River, but she bore symbolic responsibility for it and has had the decency to admit it. It's not vengeance that we need now for those 29 miners, though it might not be a bad start. We need a total rethink of who and what we are.

The past is not the solution, even if some of us remember the vague socialism we grew up in and think it wasn't totally a bad thing. At least we knew that employers needed laws to ensure they were fair. At least people had relative job security. At least government departments ticked over with continuity, and with a vision longer than next week. At least there was an ideal, however obsolete and obscure, in the background.

Pike River shows what happens when you tear such things away. It's an ugly indictment of an ugly time and I doubt that even now we've learned our lesson.

The Dominion Post