Save your tears, Prime Minister

21 Jul

By Matt McCarten

Herald on Sunday July 21, 2013

So, 29 innocents are dead and entombed at Pike River by the greed and negligence of others, and yet this week police shrug their shoulders and say no charges are to be laid. According to our enforcers in uniform, no one is to blame.

The problem the police have is there are too many guilty ones. There are the millionaire mine owners who have got away scot-free with their loot intact; the management who played roulette with the safety of their workers to please their owners; and the Department of Labour officials who happily drew their salaries while ignoring their duty to protect fellow citizens.

John Key is full of “sympathy” for Pike River victims

The guilty include senior politicians from successive governments who passed the laws and cut budgets that helped create the fatal circumstances.

That is why the enforcers have washed their hands of the whole thing. There are individual culprits but the real problem is that the entire system is to blame.

Owners are protected by corporate entities. Management say they can’t be held responsible as they did their best with what they had. Officials claim they didn’t have the resources to enforce safety. Politicians, naturally, blame each other. Everybody is responsible, so it’s easier to say no one is and sweep it under the carpet – or under the earth, in this case.

Shortly after the disaster, our Prime Minister talked about recovering the bodies and seeking justice for the dead. Parliament adjourned and flew to the West Coast for a national memorial service attended by the mine bosses and politicians, who sat together on the front of the stage dabbing their eyes.

Our Prime Minister led the mourning, vowing to the families of the dead: “We can offer some comfort and support, that’s my role. I’m happy to step up and do that.”

What a difference three years make. The owners remain largely anonymous. The court scolded them for their conduct and demanded they pay $3.4 million to the victims’ families. The owners’ receivers say they aren’t paying this; in all likelihood, even the $1.4 million directly owed to the workers before the disaster isn’t getting paid.

Instead, after Pike River’s receivers paid themselves, they handed the Bank of New Zealand $23.5 million including interest. As secured creditors, Solid Energy got all of its money and Pike River’s main shareholder, Oil and Gas, got most of its money back too. Taxpayers paid millions more to the cops, lawyers, judges and others involved. The victims’ families got virtually nothing.

In similar cases in the United States, the Government stumps up $1.9 million to each family. Key ruled that out. “We have enormous sympathy,” he said, but “we do worry a lot about precedent”.

Our Prime Minister wants to protect a system where financiers get their fill at the trough first and employees’ families last. Instead, the families are consoled by our Prime Minister’s offers of sympathy. Maybe he could get his secretary to send them a card?

(Matt McCarten is National Secretary of Unite Union. His weekly Herald on Sunday column are a commentary on social and political issues in New Zealand. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unite Union.)

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