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Pike River and other disasters

29 November 2010

While trying to cope with the fallout from finance company collapses, the "Leaky houses" crisis, and the Canterbury earthquake, New Zealand has been hit in quick succession by the Southland snowfall, the PSA crisis in the kiwifruit industry, and now the Pike River coal mine disaster.   With the exception of the earthquake, the common themes in this catalogue of disasters are greed, recklessness and incompetence causing disaster, timidity and procrastination in addressing the consequences, and a lack of public candour in the aftermath.   The most obvious responses have aimed to protect and enhance the powers of the very institutions which have been responsible for the disaster.  On past performance, we can expect greater powers and privileges to be granted to the mining corporations as a direct result of the Pike River tragedy.

Something went badly wrong at Pike River.  It appears that there was no watch at the entrance to the mine.  According to reports the two survivors spent two hours walking down the incline to escape the mine and raise the alarm.  Those two hours arguably provided the only opportunity there was to rescue any survivors of the first explosion on the Friday.  In my experience New Zealand workers do not normally enter spaces deemed to be dangerous, unless the internal atmosphere is being constantly monitored, a "door watch" is present, emergency services are on call, and rescue equipment is close to hand.  None of these conditions seem to have been met at Pike Valley.  One has to ask why not.  One also has to ask why a cigarette smoker would be employed in an underground coal mine in this day and age, and what security measures were in place to ensure that no potential sources of ignition were taken into the mine.  Safety rules can be frustrating.  Their immediate effect is to slow progress and increase costs.  But safety should never be disregarded for the sake of production.

The other events in New Zealand's catalogue of recent disasters do not have the dramatic human impact of the Pike River tragedy, but they have much in common.  The collapse of  finance companies, culminating with South Canterbury Finance, was the obvious result of widespread, systematic greed and recklessness.  The regime's response was to use public funds to bail out the very people whose reckless greed and incompetence caused the crisis.  The leaky house epidemic was the result of incompetent decision making by central and local government bureaucrats which played into the hands of shonky builders and developers.  Ill-conceived changes to the Building Standards were made by government appointed "experts" who wilfully disregarded the effects of the notoriously wet New Zealand climate, the highly perishable nature of radiata pine timber, and the uneven standards of the New Zealand building industry, in order to allow houses and apartments to be built ever more cheaply and profitably.  Bureaucratic failure combined with the greed and incompetence of housing development companies to unleash a plague of leaky houses and apartments upon an unsuspecting public.  Only when the scale of the disaster became fully apparent to all - when their houses starting visibly rotting - was the problem acknowledged by government and the media.  The response has been changes to the building laws which throw obstacles in the way of people who want to build or improve their own dwellings, and thus shore up the position of the building companies which were responsible for the catastrophe.  There has been no serious attempt to make developers and bureaucrats accountable for their past or future actions, and no serious analysis of how political considerations drove government decision-making, such as the decision to allow the use of untreated radiata pine timber in building.

While the causes of the Pseudomonas syringae (PSA) infection in the kiwifruit industry have yet to be fully identified, the known facts point to a bio-security failure.  Bio-security officials failed to recognize that PSA can be transferred on pollen particles and allowed growers to import pollen for artificial pollination of orchards.   Orchardists have the choice of using bees to pollinate their vines (at a small cost) or artificially pollinating with pollen taken from their own vines using local labour.  Instead, many decided, and were allowed, to import pollen collected from cheap labour countries.  Private greed, government recklessness and bureaucratic incompetence have again combined to threaten the viability of an important industry.

One of the features of modern government is that the bureaucracy has retreated from the direct process of administration.  The new role of government departments is to develop policy and to set in place "systems" to be implemented in the private sector.  Checks on the operations of those systems - for example building standards, biosecurity, or health and safety - are largely limited to analysis of the relevant private sector paper work.  This makes it improbable that bureaucratic failure will be an acknowledged factor in any misadventure or disaster.  The private sector puts "systems" on paper, and that satisfies the requirements of the relevant regulatory body . Whether or not systems are actually implemented only becomes apparent when a disaster occurs.

The causes of these events are systemic.  All elements of the regime - the political parties, the bureaucracy and the media - are implicated. That helps to explain the failure to prevent disaster, to mitigate its effects, or to attribute responsibility.  Lack of accountability is endemic in New Zealand society.  It starts at the top - with the Head of State - and proceeds down through all levels of government.     Individual officials of state, from Elizabeth Windsor down, must be held responsible for their acts and omissions.  They should be dismissed from office for serious dereliction of duty.   But because the problem is systemic, it cannot be properly addressed simply  by pursuing individuals.  The political system itself needs to undergo radical change before the problem will be resolved.

For the moment, there is no sign that the government is concerned to impose individual accountability or meaningful systemic change.  The state is doing less to protect the population while it seeks ever more draconian powers, and ever more circumscribed accountability, for itself and its officials.   Manurewa liquor merchant Navtej Singh was left alone to die of gunshot wounds in his store while surrounding police spent hours determining whether it was perfectly safe to enter the shop in order to offer assistance.  Courier driver Halatau Naitoko was killed by a volley of misdirected police gunfire on Auckland's Northwestern Motorway.  The government response to the tragic deaths of Singh and Naitoko has been to make firearms more readily available to the New Zealand police.  Singh died because police were unwilling to expose themselves to a vanishingly small risk of harm.   Naitoko died because police used their firepower with reckless disregard for the lives of ordinary citizens.   With greater police firepower the results may have been even more tragic.

The state has become overly protective of its own, and insufficiently protective of the lives of its citizens.  In response to the Canterbury earthquake it has granted itself draconian powers in violation of all the usual constitutional checks and balances.  Yet the problem is not an insufficiency of state power.  The problem is the New Zealand state's abdication of the responsibility to protect its citizens from serious harm.

There is another aspect to these man-made disasters which may be peculiar to New Zealand   In the Cave Creek,  Erebus and Mikhail Lermontov disasters individuals in positions of responsibility took an "innovative" approach, a departure from established practice, in the expectation of a striking improvement upon previous outcomes.  They did so with confidence and enthusiasm, but without properly analysing the consequences of their actions, or consulting with others who had a better understanding of the reasons for existing rules, regulations and practices.   The fatally defective Cave Creek viewing structure was built by Department of Conservation staff who did not understand basic engineering principles.  The Erebus flight route was altered by ground staff who did not understand the risks and difficulties of flying in Antarctic conditions.   The cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov was taken through an impossibly dangerous passage by a pilot who impulsively decided to go where no others had safely gone before.   Enthusiasm for innovation was an important factor in the leaky house crisis and the financial crisis.   Innovation is not in itself a bad thing, but far too often in New Zealand innovations are made without analysis, consultation, or understanding of the consequences.   The "structural reforms" made to the New Zealand economy during the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties is another example of innovations embarked upon with confidence and enthusiasm, but without analysis, discussion or consultation.   In that case however the resulting economic catastrophe has emerged so slowly and in such complex fashion that few are able to connect it to the rushed and ill-judged reforms of last century.

At times the  decision makers of the regime fail to act promptly and effectively to prevent harm.  At other times they act arbitrarily or impulsively, without analysis of the circumstances or understanding of the consequences.    Military leaders, politicians, economists, finance company directors, police officers, airline executives, agricultural and forestry scientists, government bureaucrats and mine managers have been allowed to evade responsibility for "mistakes" of alarming proportions.   They have got away with it because the regime which they serve is in manifest denial of the principles of merit, competence and responsibility.  Instead New Zealand has established a disaster cult of disaster, in which the heroism of victims and rescuers (real or imagined) is glorified while the causes and perpetrators are ignored.    The centre piece of this cult is the annual Anzac Day celebrations of the 1915 invasion of Gallipoli peninsula, where no mention is made of the imperialist motives for the invasion, the astounding failure of intelligence, or the incompetent conduct of the campaign.   The same story was repeated in the wars in Greece,  Crete, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and will go on being repeated until the New Zealand cult of heroic failure, as a cover for the incompetence of the regime, is finally laid to rest.

In the weeks to come New Zealanders will be hearing much about the heroism of the Pike River miners, and much less about the incompetence, greed and recklessness of their managers.   There will be talk of how the disaster has brought New Zealanders closer together, and taught lessons for the future.  But there will be no move by the regime to assign positions of authority on the basis of merit.  There will be no accountability for the disaster and the monarchy will remain firmly in place as the regime's symbol of power without merit or responsibility.