Pike River: not laissez-faire but lackadaisical

The Pike River commission’s report must, finally, represent the low-water mark of economic de-regulation in New Zealand.

A dictionary definition of “laissez-faire” gives two meanings:

  1. individualism the doctrine of unrestricted freedom in commerce, esp for private interests
  2. indifference or non-interference, esp in the affairs of others.

Read the section What Happened, in volume one of  the report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy.  It difficult not to draw the conclusion that, in New Zealand’s deregulated and commercially-oriented economy, laissez-faire means not just indifference, but callous indifference, to the well-being and even the lives of others.

Rod Oram, in the Sunday Star-Times on 11 November, damns the “She’ll be right” culture that seemed to pervade the Pike River company, saying:

It wasn’t an anomaly. It will happen again. Deep in our psyche we believe improvisation is innovation. We believe cutting corners copes with complexities.

Rod’s opinion piece is a good read, and a damning indictment, but it doesn’t entirely get to the heart of the matter.

Over the last three decades, New Zealand’s ruling elites have developed a culture of indifference and unconcern – not just to workplace safety, but also to child poverty; to the integrity of the democratic system of government; to our economic future in the post-carbon age.

The term “lackadaisical now correctly describes New Zealand’s political and economic system. The proof of that is given in the Pike River tragedy; and in this government’s gutting of the ETS; and in the programme of road-building it has undertaken; and in the child poverty statistics.

And it is not just this National Party government that is to blame.  It is the cosy duopoly of National and Labour governments that have led us down this path, playing pass the parcel in parliament – both following a neo-liberal agenda, since the mid-1980’s.

The Pike River tragedy must serve as the nadir of neo-liberalism: the point at which we should turn away from those corrupt ideas, and start to restore and re-develop our public and private institutions.  Market systems are fine when they are effectively self-regulating: but the concept of self-regulation does not imply a lack of regulation.  Market mechanisms can, and must, be used if they do in fact serve the needs of society and all its members. In any other case society must, unapologetically and thoughtfully, regulate to serve its best interests.

The antonyms of lackadaisical include: active, careful, caring, energetic, enthusiastic, and hard-working.  These words are more than mere adjectives: they also describe values.  Values that should describe the Green Party in the public mind, and a Green Party government after the 2014 election.

Travel soothes the mind

Well, that was an optimistic title, really.

I had some time on the West Coast over the New Year break, and while absolutely enjoying the hospitality of my various hosts, visiting friends and family of my son-in-law, I also had some opportunities to explore some of the less satisfactory side of life on the Coast.

But first: the good bits.

Here’s a lovely picture of natural beauty, the Hokitika Gorge (I’ll leave out the pix with people scattered through them, you’re just getting the unadulterated glacier-fed river and bush-clad gorge).

Hokitika Gorge from the swingbridge

Hokitika Gorge from the swingbridge

Then we wandered along towards Greymouth, and discovered Shantytown, which has gone up in price 500% since my son-in-law last visited a couple of years ago. As we weren’t a busload of asian tourists, we had a quick look, used the conveniences and left. It seemed like a good business, and the gift shop was doing a roaring trade in the smallest pieces of gold-flake I’ve ever seen in my life, but there you are, to each his or her own. The working small-guage gold-fields train from Kaitangata looked cute.

Kaitangata engine steaming towards the station, Shantytown

Kaitangata engine steaming towards the station, Shantytown

Further down the road, on our way to have a look at Lake Brunner, we stopped at the roadside info for the Brunner Mine disaster, the big news of 1896, and the reason we have any mining legislation at all, really. I popped across on the bridge that spans the Grey River, to check out the site remains and the memorial to the 65 miners who died in that incident, and found that there were also memorials to the 19 miners who died in the Strongman mine disaster in 1967, and the very recent Pike River disaster in November 2010.

Pike River Miners Memorial at Brunner Mine Disaster Memorial

Pike River Miners Memorial at Brunner Mine Disaster Memorial

In conversation with a local woman who was also by the memorial that day, I wondered whether the choice to work in the mines was not as real as she posited, due to the lack of other industry investment in the region. We discussed that one from opposing angles for a few minutes, before both coming to agreement on the fact that Pike River Coal had distinctly transgressed current mining legislation around safety, and that they would have to answer for that in Court in the remainder of the Commission of Inquiry. Meanwhile, there is at least one little boy born since the accident who has never met his dad, and many more family members who still grieve the loss of their brothers, sons, husbands and workmates and want an answer to why it was allowed to happen. Mr Whittall still has some actions to account for.

Greymouth is a pretty town, if prone to ground-level fog for much of the winter, according to my hosts. We had a late-afternoon lovo, the fijian version of hangi, but with a chilli-basted twist to satisfy the spicy palates of my relatives and their friends. With the afternoon sun glinting off the children’s paddling pool, and the surf crashing in the distance, I could fully appreciate why families would come to this part of New Zealand and relish the life it offers them. I left small-town New Zealand behind me when I moved to the city to study in my early adulthood, but I often find myself looking at provincial towns and seeing the beauty in their simplicity, their proximity to recreational areas, the unspoilt compact urban areas, and thinking ‘What if?’. Even the local newspaper had an attractive air to it!

Carpark wall mural at the Greymouth Evening Star

Carpark wall mural at the Greymouth Evening Star

Two days on the West Coast was hardly enough to satisfy me, and my traveller’s bug wants to be sated with a trip to Karamea, a look at Punakaiki Rocks, maybe an expedition to see the Denniston mine historic site before too much longer – there’s a lot to see in this area, and I can see myself coming back again.
Perhaps that is a fitting way to give some help to the Coasters, too – building tourism and art/craft enterprises, showing off the history without degrading the lives of those who remain engaged in local industries, making a sustainable future for those who live in this beautiful but often harsh environment.