(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, November 28.)
This might seem an insensitive question, but it needs to be asked. Exactly what will be achieved by going back into the Pike River mine?
The justification for the $36 million re-entry operation is often vaguely expressed and seems to vary depending on who’s doing the talking.
Anna Osborne, who lost her husband in the Pike River disaster, wants the 29 miners’ remains recovered. Bernie Monk, whose son was killed, talks about wanting “justice and accountability”.
The Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-Entry, Andrew Little, says the purpose of the proposed re-entry is to better understand the cause of the tragedy and “perhaps to recover remains”.
But the crucial question has already been answered. There was a series of explosions caused by a build-up of lethal methane gas. The mine was high-risk and the hazards were poorly managed.
This was established by a royal commission of inquiry. Will sending in a recovery team provide additional information of such critical importance that it will justify the risk and expense involved?
That’s the crucial question that not only hasn’t satisfactorily been answered but can’t be answered, because no one knows what the recovery team will find – that is, assuming the re-entry succeeds.
So what else might be achieved? Well, human remains might be recovered – but again, they might not be.
The police might find evidence that might lead to a prosecution – but who knows? That’s a lot of mights.
And overhanging all of this is the possibility that after all the anguish, the anticipation and the planning, the re-entry operation will have to be abandoned because it is either too difficult or too dangerous.
The project is fraught with ifs, buts and maybes. So how did we get to this position?
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it has come about through a feverish interaction of populist politics, media attention and the unresolved grief of the bereaved families, all feeding off each other and pushing inexorably toward an uncertain outcome that may turn out to be of dubious merit.
At the outset, I felt enormous sympathy for the Pike River families. I still feel for them. But as the years have passed that sympathy has been tinged with a degree of cynicism as I’ve watched the key players become seasoned media campaigners and political lobbyists.
They have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Labour-led government and been rewarded with a seat at the decision-making table.
Along the way, a note of hubris and entitlement has entered the picture. This was apparent when a miner’s mother, Sonya Rockhouse, demanded an official apology but in the same breath, reserved the right to reject it.
The carefully orchestrated PR event at which the re-entry plan was announced would have played well to the public, with its hugs and tears and allusions to victory for the “little people”. It also pushed the right buttons for Labour, which has close sentimental and historical associations with coal mines and the West Coast.
But is it good public policy to commit so much money and potentially risk more lives for such an uncertain and ill-defined outcome? I’m not so sure.
It must also be said that not all the families support re-entry. Marion Curtin, whose son was killed at Pike River, courageously spoke out against what she described as an appalling waste of money – especially, she says, given the lack of certainty about what might be achieved.
Curtin wants her son’s remains left undisturbed and says people shouldn’t assume that the Pike River activists speak for all the bereaved.
She has pointed out that coal mines, by their nature, are dangerous places that involve an element of risk. To which it might be added that some of the dead men were experienced miners who must have known about the mine’s safety shortcomings but chose to work there nonetheless.
Curtin told Radio New Zealand she loathed the fact that the issue had become so political and that she saw it as “sacrilege, really, to go in fossicking around for remains … to go in just to see what they find”.
The key underlying issue here, I suspect, is that Pike River remains a matter of unfinished business for one very obvious reason: no one has been held accountable for the disaster. That must gnaw away at the families who have pushed so determinedly for the re-entry.
In the void left by the failure to hold anyone criminally liable, the mine re-entry has become the focus of the families' anger, grief and frustration. They are looking for what is fashionably called closure, but there's no guarantee they will get it. And even if they do, what will be the cost?