Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Taxpayers' Money is Always Cheap

Pike River Re-entry Plan Now Costs $36 Million

A $7 Million Plan's Costs Explode

John Roughan
Editorial writer and columnist, NZ Herald

Andrew Little used to be secretary of the union that included journalists and though I wasn't a member I happened to see him holding meetings in our newsroom sometimes and I was impressed. He didn't rant and rage, he was quietly firm and dogged and seemed above all, sensible. So I have been surprised at some of his decisions in politics.

The first was back when he was Leader of the Opposition and he stood down his social welfare spokeswoman because her mother was being prosecuted for continuing to draw a benefit after entering a de facto relationship.

Some time later a National minister was similarly embarrassed by a family member in some way and John Key was fielding questions in Parliament from the Opposition who thought the minister should be told to stand aside. Eventually someone on the Labour side invoked their leader's decision. Key looked at the questioner and gently replied, "I thought that was the wrong call".

The camera switched back to the Opposition benches and you could see in the faces of the members around Little, including the poor woman concerned, that they realised Key was right. Government is about hard calls. Often that means making the right decision knowing it will invite cheap shots from opponents, press and the public.

The decision to go back into Pike River mine was reportedly Little's alone.
Perhaps, since he was the party leader when Labour endorsed Winston Peters' typically irresponsible opportunism, the rest of them decided he could wear it. They made him Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry on top of the hefty portfolios of Justice, Courts, Treaty Negotiations and the intelligence agencies.

The first thing Little did was set up a new organisation, the Pike River Recovery Agency, to advise him on the safety of various mine entry methods. Last week he chose one. It looks like the same one put to the previous Government. It involves constructing air-tight chambers along the tunnel they call the drift, pumping in nitrogen to displace the methane and making the air progressively breathable.

Just as in 2013, they don't propose to go further than the point where the tunnel has collapsed about 2km in. The only difference is that five years ago this plan was reportedly estimated to cost $7.2 million. Last week we were told it will cost $36m. This is madness.

We are spending $36m on a project that will not even reach the mine proper, where the 29 men were most likely working when it exploded. We are told we are spending this money for "the families" but we only ever see or hear from three of the bereaved, Anna Osborne, Sonya Rockhouse and Bernie Monk.

They were the only three we could see on TV around Little when he made his announcement last week. They were the only three that were filmed laying wreaths on the eighth anniversary of the disaster this week. Where are the rest? One or two have made it known they would like their loved ones left in peace. All but three have probably come to terms with grief, as you do.

Osborne, Rockhouse and Monk cannot have much hope of finding human remains in the drift, where one of Rockhouse's sons was when the mine exploded and he walked out, helping the only other fellow he came across. The inconsolable trio sound more hopeful the police will find evidence for a new prosecution.

They are aggrieved that a prosecution of Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall on charges under the Health and Safety Act ended in an out of court settlement in 2013. That settlement, which saw the company's insurers pay out $3.4m to the families of the 29 and to the two survivors, was eminently sensible.

It was one of those deals lawyers do when both sides know the evidence against the accused is open to endless challenges and the case could run for months to the benefit of nobody but themselves. It is hard to imagine there is better evidence to be found among the debris in the drift to warrant this ridiculous expense.

How has a $7.2m re-entry plan become $36m anyway? Maybe it is just what happens when you set up a stand-alone agency to do a job previously done from a desk in a department. The PRRA website introduces a chief executive, chief operating officer, chief of staff, a communications adviser, a family reference group liaison officer, a principal staff officer ...

"Safety is paramount," they all say. If you listened closely last week, they're not definitely going further than a second chamber, a trifling 170m into the 2km tunnel. Beyond that, they say, it might not be safe. In other words, nothing has changed but the bill.

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