There is increasing disquiet about the decision to withdraw all charges against Peter Whittall over the deaths of the Pike River miners and the role of the Government in what has happened is going to be put under intense scrutiny. Because the whole thing has the stench of merchant banking deal making rather than the sober and proper prosecution of someone for serious offences involving the needless deaths of 29 workers.
There has already been one full hearing into the disaster. The Government appointed Royal Commission concluded after hearing considerable evidence that “even though the company was operating in a known high-hazard industry, the board of directors did not ensure that health and safety was being properly managed and the executive managers did not properly assess the health and safety risks that the workers were facing. In the drive towards coal production the directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety and exposed the company’s workers to unacceptable risks. Mining should have stopped until the risks could be properly managed.”
In the prosecution of Pike River Ltd under the HSIE Act Judge Farrish slammed the company for a “total lack of remorse” because of claims that it could not afford to pay reparation to the families. She is quoted as saying “It is not often a company steps back and holds its hands up and says ‘I have nothing’. Even a company in a fragile state usually comes forward and offers reparation, but here nothing has been forthcoming. I am satisfied the company has the means to pay either by existing shareholders or a combination of the shareholders and directors. I note that the directors have significant insurance.” Despite the claims of poverty Judge Farrish ordered payment of reparation of $110,000 to each of the deceased’s families and to the two survivors. The total of these payments is $3.41 million.
The compensation was not paid. David Cunliffe took up the cause and asked in Parliament why the Government did not contribute to these payments, after all it had indirectly received as shareholders of the companies involved an insurance payout. His questioning of John Key was the first time that I have seen Key completely and utterly embarrassed in the house.
This was increasingly becoming an issue of deep embarrassment to the Government.
Yesterday’s bombshell announcement that charges were being withdrawn and that the insurance company was going to pay $3.41 million compensation has caused increasing disquiet. Helen Kelly and the CTU are thinking about seeking a judicial review of the case. Bernie Monk on behalf of the families has called the payment “blood money”. I presume the payment is to satisfy the order of compensation originally made by Judge Farrish.
I am sure that Judge Farrish has acted with the best of intentions. She is obviously deeply concerned for the families and wants to do the best for them. But the coupling of the payment with the withdrawal of the charges creates the unfortunate impression that payment of money in this case may have avoided a prosecution. And besides it was money that should have been paid anyway.
This neatly solves a political problem for the Government. Instead of being open to criticism for not paying its share of the $3.41 million one of its departments agrees not to prosecute and magically the payment is made and a particular political wound is cauterised.
For the sake of the sanctity of our justice system this needs to be investigate fully. The decision making process and political input into the decision to withdraw the charges should be examined carefully. Simon Bridges’ claim that legal privilege applied even before has a ring of misplaced bravado about it. Before we even know what documents are being talked about he is claiming legal privilege and you have to wonder if there is something that National wants to hide.
We have not heard the last of this issue. And down on the West Coast there are 29 families still wanting to see justice done so that they can have closure.