Self-regulation a failure

19:37, Nov 06 2012

Business leaders prefer to regulate themselves. Releasing a pamphlet on the profit-impeding proliferation of red tape six years ago, Business NZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly noted a big increase in the number of regulations - more than 2000 - over the previous seven years. The pamphlet argued for greater use of light-handed regulation and more self-regulation by industries.

Notwithstanding the numbers of new regulations, the so-called "more-market" reforms under the Lange and Bolger governments resulted in a specialised team of six mine inspectors being disbanded in favour of self-regulation by mining companies. The 1999-2008 Labour government kept the arrangement.

The explosion that killed 29 miners at Pike River in 2010 was the horrendous consequence. Production of coal took precedence over safety. The two survivors, on reaching a fresh air base 1500 metres from the exit, found there was no working phone, breathing gear or air supply. And there was just one way in and out of the mine (this would have been illegal in Australia).

The cavalier culture nurtured at Pike River and the short cuts it encouraged, became more shamefully clear this week in the report of the Royal Commission that inquired into the tragedy.

The prompt resignation of Kate Wilkinson as Minister of Labour was appropriate, given the report's criticism of her department's failure to properly supervise the Pike River operations. But remedial action is needed, too, and acting Labour Minister Chris Finlayson encouragingly says the Government broadly accepts all 16 of the Royal Commission's recommendations, which cover administrative reform, stronger regulation, changes to mining legislation, improving workplace health and safety, and emergency management.

Prime Minister John Key perhaps has forgotten that back in 2010 he defended the safety record of mining in this country and rejected suggestions Australia had higher safety standards. Now he has acknowledged safety procedures at Pike River would have been different if officials had been adopting world's best practice and keeping up with safety enhancement in other mining environments. He should also acknowledge that self-regulation is ill-suited to ensuring workers' health and safety.