No minister, there are no heroes here

21:58, Nov 09 2012

Walk down Lambton Quay on any particular morning and you will see them. The gaggles of officials and public servants rushing to the Beehive, folders in their hands, rehearsing their lines for whichever minister issued the summons.

No doubt there used to be a time when the stereotype was true, and they arrived in cardigans and walk shorts. But it's all crisp suits and polished shoes these days. In an age when the boss can earn half a million dollars a year, expectations are higher than they used to be.

Maybe the neutrality of the public service got weeded out along with the cardigan wearers. Or maybe it has always been more myth than reality.

Whatever the answer, the report by the Pike River Royal Commission of Inquiry revealed the massive and tragic failings of the public service in its role as watchdog. If this was a Third World disaster, it would probably be a tale of money changing hands in exchange for turning a blind eye.

Here, it appears to be something just as shameful: A tale of bad law-making and a public service culture that judges risk in terms of headlines, ministerial displeasure - and political fallout.

That culture is evident at any function where public servants and their political masters collide. The mere mortals who occupy the Government front bench are reverently referred to as "the minister".


Even lowly backbenchers are treated with fear - the upper echelons of entire government departments empty out for the morning when they are up for their annual select committee review. Rows of officials sit poised behind the chief executive as he or she gives evidence, frantically passing notes back and forth as protection against the boss not having an instant answer to an MP's question.

Back in the day when being a faceless public servant allowed a certain amount of fearlessness, no-one had to worry about being named and shamed, kicked around like a political football and hung out to dry.

These days, that's how politicians cut their teeth.

Former Labour MP Steve Maharey helped bring down the National Government in 1999 by pillorying former Work and Income boss Christine Rankin, among others.

Former ACT leader Rodney Hide viewed naming and shaming public servants as a personal crusade. The golden rule for a public service chief executive is that once the public knows your name, it is probably already too late to save your job.

No wonder the machine behind the "no surprises" policy that exists between ministers' offices and their departments has grown so huge. In theory, it's supposed to be an expression of good faith between ministers and their departments.

In practice, it's a huge stick, an implied threat, a demand that anything remotely controversial must pass across the minister's desk to be scrutinised for political fallout. Far from diminishing under National, which got elected off the back of a promise to "cut the fat" in the bureaucracy, the iron-fisted control exerted by the Beehive ninth floor has only grown.

So laying responsibility for any governmental failings over Pike River solely at the feet of officials, as prime minister John Key did, is worse than disingenuous.

Certainly, the failure of the officials to take any action against Pike River, in the face of clear and present danger, is unfathomable.

Worse, no-one within the former Labour Department, which was tasked with overseeing mine safety, seems to have even realised that they were failing.

If Mr Key is correct, there is no evidence of alarm bells ringing within the department, no record of some doughty inspector lodging their concerns with higher management, no warnings of potential catastrophe.

In the six days it held on to the report before its public release, the Government seems to have spent the time feverishly trawling through documents to check there was nothing in the paperwork that might incriminate the minister in the department's negligence.

On the contrary, Mr Key claims, the search revealed a belief within the department that they were operating at the level of world best practice.

Statements of intent were honoured, bench marks achieved, business plans ticked off.

The Royal Commission slates the Labour Department for lacking the focus, capacity or strategies to ensure Pike River was meeting its legal responsibilities under health and safety laws. It assumed that Pike was complying, even though there was "ample evidence to the contrary". It stood by while workers were exposed to unacceptable risks.

Instead of shutting the mine till it was fixed, the department kept talking to the mine bosses, and accepted their assurances that serious people were in charge, plans were in place, and all would be well. But nobody should be particularly surprised by that.

The Labour Department was operating within the political rhetoric of the past 20 years: Cutting red tape is the holy grail, health and safety measures are the ball and chain, and regulation is never neutral - it's either heavy-handed, or light-handed.

No prizes for guessing which of those wins the political contest.

The governmental failings stretch back even further. When Pike's mining permit was approved in 1997, the sole focus of the permitting agency, the Economic Development Ministry, was on its economic benefits to New Zealand. The ministry did not check the experience of the applicant and its proposed mining practice, It did not consult the Labour Department, meaning no-one looked at the health and safety implications of the proposed mine, and MED did not consider mine safety to be its concern.

Ultimate blame rests with the management and directors of Pike River, of course.

The Royal Commission finding that there was a culture of production before safety is damning.

The company's failures are unforgivable. But it would have been comforting if the inquiry had found at least one hero within officialdom, a quiet but determined whistle blower, someone who spoke up, but who was either shushed or ignored.

There used to be a time when you could rely on that. No more.

The culture which has percolated from the top down is built around a fear of repercussions. Reports to the minister are carefully framed. Stark warnings about death and destruction go down like a cup of cold proverbial.

They are a gun to the minister's head. They are brown envelope fodder, a leak waiting to happen. That's why they are never sent.

The only documents leaked these days seem to concern pay and conditions. Maybe it's time to bring back the cardigan wearers.

The Dominion Post