Wellington, June 21, 2017
Like most New Zealanders, I was shocked that November weekend in 2010 when the reality struck that 29 men had perished in the Pike River Mine.
My initial reaction was like that of so many people – that everything possible should be done to retrieve their bodies, and bring a sense of closure to their loved ones.
Over time, as the scientific and specialist evidence was gathered, then presented to the Royal Commission established to investigate the disaster, and the apparently ever so saddened and seemingly reassuring Mr Whitall kept appearing on television, I came to the view that the awful reality was that it was probably too dangerous to risk re-entering the mine to retrieve the bodies of the men.
A large part of me still holds to that view, but then I am not directly affected.
However, the drip-feed of revelations over recent years about documentary evidence that was either known at the time, but not accorded weight by the Royal Commission, or perhaps not even presented to the Commission at all, and has become available subsequently, leaves me questioning increasingly the received wisdom that the mine was best left sealed as a permanent memorial to the men who died there.
First was the exposé of Mr Whitall and the company that owned Pike River at the time, which raised substantial questions about the what had been going on, and how safe the mine had been all along.
Then came the now constant refrains every time apparently new documentary evidence was revealed that it either ‘contained nothing new’ or ‘was known to the Royal Commission at the time,’ but ‘in any case does not change anything.’
It is all starting to wear a little thin, after all these years.
There still seems to be either a lack of clear facts about what went on, or at least a lack of full public access to the full story that may be known by some.
Spectre of inaccuracy
As a bottom line, I do not think it appropriate to put lives potentially at risk to retrieve the remains of the victims of Pike River.
That has always been the argument put forward for not attempting to re-enter the mine. On the face of it, and the official facts available, it is hard to argue against. But the continuing revelations about the state of the mine now and then raise many questions about the accuracy of that advice.
And while that spectre of inaccuracy remains, so will the perfectly understandable anguish and frustration of the families grow.
Instead of the essentially cat and mouse game that has been going on for now nearly seven years continuing, surely it is time to put all the relevant information – audio-visual, technical, safety and otherwise – into the public arena where it can be properly and thoroughly assessed. I, for one, do not like learning of relevant ‘previously unreleased footage,’ or the like.
If the material exists, it should be made public, so that everyone can know and understand exactly what the issues are, and can reach their judgements accordingly.
Of course, it may well be that at the end of such a process nothing much changes. The mine might still be considered unsafe to enter, and the status quo will remain.
But at least there will be an obvious evidential base established to either confirm or debunk the findings of the Royal Commission.
At present, we seem left increasingly, rightly or wrongly, with the suspicion that there is more to this story that has hitherto been acknowledged publicly.
And that is a completely unsatisfactory way to resolve an issue that has troubled people for so long.
Now, I appreciate well that there will be those who will criticise me for not having expressed these views earlier.
A fair cop, maybe, but I suspect I have been no different to many considered New Zealanders who felt appalled by the horror of the original tragedy, and believed that, hard and all as it would have been for the families, the official investigations would come to the right conclusion, having had the opportunity to consider all the known facts and expert evidence.
I am one of many who have become more uneasy over the years about the apparently ever shifting sands of how the Pike River case has been handled.
Of course, my heart goes out to the families who suffered the loss of husbands, sons and brothers. I have felt for them at every stage as they have hoed the difficult road to recovery, and have hoped time would heal their wounds.
I used to feel that, tough and all as they were, the decisions taken not to go back into the mine were probably correct, sadly, and an inevitable consequence of a tragedy of this type. But today, I can no longer feel that way with any confidence.
Peter Dunne is Interior Minister of New Zealand.