Key fails on Pike River payout

COLIN ESPINER
Last updated 14:56 20/11/2013

Prime Minister John Key generally has a good political radar.

He has that ability necessary in all leaders to sniff the wind; to judge public sentiment and to gauge what is acceptable to most people and what is not. 

Such judgment isn't always about what is legally right and wrong, or about rules or procedures. It's about "natural justice" - fairness, if you like. And spotting issues that upset people and issues that don't.

No-one gets it right all the time, however, and Key has spectacularly failed in the case of the families of the Pike River 29. Cabinet's decision not to pay a measly $3 million in compensation to those who lost their men in the West Coast mine explosion in 2010 is nothing short of astounding.

Actually, it's more than astounding. It's a gross insult to the families and an admission that the Government really hasn't learned that much from the whole tragedy.

Cabinet's excuse - that it would be setting a precedent by paying out court-ordered compensation on behalf of a private company - is risable on several levels.

First, it wouldn't be a precedent at all. The Government regularly dips into the taxpayer purse to fund private companies. Just three months ago it found ten times this much - $30 million - to give to another mining company in fact - the multi billion-dollar international corporate Rio Tinto. No-one died - the money was simply to stop Rio mothballing the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter. 

Indeed, if you want to talk corporate welfare then this National Government has been every bit as generous as its Labour predecessor - $1.7 billion for South Canterbury Finance, half a billion for AMI, $25 million for its own mining company Solid Energy.

Second, while Key is happy to rely on the advice of Attorney General Chris Finlayson that there was "no legal recourse'' for the Crown to be liable for the court-ordered compensation, a very good case could be mounted that it is highly culpable - should the families of the Pike 29 wish to test it in court. 

Pike River was granted a mining licence by the Crown, whose own mining inspectors failed woefully in ensuring adequate safety standards were being met at the mine. The Royal Commission of Inquiry was scathing of the systemic failures that contributed to the deaths of the men, and laid much of the blame squarely at the Crown's door.

Even if the Government wishes to do a Pontius Pilate and wash its hands of any culpability, it cannot avoid its connection to Pike River through two direct shareholdings owned by the ACC and the New Zealand Superannuation Fund. The Crown was donkey deep in Pike River.

Yet even if none of the above were the case the Government should still pay for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do. Pike River is a special case - a national tragedy as well as a personal one for all those directly involved. The mine explosion has had far-reaching consequences, including a re-think of the light-handed approach to industrial regulation and a re-write of workplace safety legislation in this country. 

On top of this, the families involved have had to endure three years of continuing heartache over the off-again, on-again bids to retrieve the remains of their loved ones from the mine - as well as the economic hardship that obviously follows the loss of the main breadwinner. 

Key's trite observation that "there are plenty of New Zealand companies that, for instance, go broke and .. do not end up paying redundancy payments that are owing to those workers'' shows a staggering indifference and a total lack of any understanding of the differences between being made redundant - and being killed. 

The icing on the cake was the announcement of the decision in the same week as families prepared to gather to mourn their dead on the third anniversary of the tragedy.

What makes the decision so hard to fathom - besides the fact it is such a trifling sum - is that Key's Government made all the right moves and all the right noises on Pike for so long. Key's speech to the nation after news of the explosion first broke was nothing short of moving. He has done his best to get recovery teams into the mine. He ordered the commission of inquiry. He visited the West Coast on several occasions. 

And yet somewhere along the line it seems the Government tired of Pike River and its families. Maybe it got tragedy fatigue. Maybe it thought no-one cared any more. Maybe it had more pressing concerns. 

But sometimes it's the little things and the gestures that count. And paying the 29 families who are still suffering some $110,000 each - even if the Government felt it wasn't legally obliged to - would have been one of those gestures. 

By turning their backs on the Pike families, Key and his Cabinet look callous, petty, mean-spirited and uncaring. I don't think that is a fair summary of this administration overall by any means. But that is how it looks. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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