National braces for Pike River backlash

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 04/11/2012

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OPINION: John Key will need all his political nous this week.

Tomorrow, after deliberations in Cabinet, Justice Minister Judith Collins is set to announce the way forward for the MMP review. Indications are the Government is likely to kick it for touch for a bit while it goes in search of "consensus". Which is just a neat little trick while it finds a way to backtrack on the National Party's defence of the 5 per cent threshold. Dropping to 4 per cent gives potential coalition partner the Conservative Party a much better shot in 2014.

So that's one pending conundrum dealt to. The other could cause the Government much bigger problems: the imminent public release of the findings of the Pike River Commission of Inquiry.

It is inevitable that Pike River Coal and its management will get a flogging for negligence. Criminal charges will surely follow. But National is also unlikely to get off lightly - there is little doubt that red-tape cutting contributed to the worst industrial disaster in living memory.

Last year, expert witness after expert witness in front of the commission painted a damning picture of lax safety practices which developed once the National Government of the 1990s left the industry to its own devices.

As grieving relatives, unions and opposition MPs clamoured for change, Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson resisted.

A U-turn eventually came in the form of a high hazards unit and a doubling of the number of mine inspectors. It looked very much like an admission that the Pike River disaster might not have occurred if the inspectorates hadn't been abolished.

The commission is likely to conclude the regulatory environment still falls short, especially when compared to Australia.

The prime minister's stocks rose sky high in the weeks following the disaster. But almost two years on from the death of the 29 miners, their families feel betrayed. They heard him promise to recover the remains - anything other than that will be a bitter disappointment, whatever the commission concludes.

The Government appears to be resigned to the fact it can't satisfy the miners' families. That Key will not return to Greymouth for the release speaks volumes.

However, the PM is less Eeyorish and more Tiggerish than in recent weeks.

The spying row has fizzled out for a bit, and with its annual conference fast approaching, Labour will be more preoccupied with navel-gazing.

Providing the commission's recommendations aren't too outrageous, National will be inclined to adopt them as Key rolls with the punches.

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