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Dunne Speaks: The Pike River Re-entry

8:06 AM

It is perhaps a commentary in itself of this Government’s media management skills that it chose to reveal the two worst kept political secrets of its tenure to date on the same day. The first was the confirmation that a manned re-entry of the Pike River mine would be attempted within the next few months, and the second was the appointment of Dame Annette King as High Commissioner to Australia.

To take Dame Annette’s appointment first, there is merit in having a seasoned politician representing us in Australia. All the more so, given her staunchly Labour background, if, as seems increasingly inevitable, that country’s Liberal/National Coalition Government is replaced by Labor after the Federal election due in the next few months.

The Pike River decision has been long foreshadowed by Labour and its partners. While it will provide closure up to a point for the Pike River families (assuming re-entry is able to be completed fully and safely) it has the potential - depending on what is discovered at the explosion site - to open up a new range of disquieting issues. What, for example, if it becomes clear from the site that there were survivors who might have been saved had a rescue attempt being mounted at the time? Other, potentially more horrific, possibilities come to mind. Should any of these come to pass, how will the families be expected to react, and what public tolerance will there be?

There will also be the inevitable questions about the previous government’s early decision to seal the mine off, effectively as a permanent memorial, and attempt no rescue on safety considerations, and the advice there was no realistic prospect of survivors. Will they stand the test of time, or will they be found to have been wanting? What lessons from that arise for the future? Also, the role of the company and its management in the lead-up to and aftermath of the disaster, and whether there remain grounds for corporate manslaughter type prosecutions, will also come under fresh scrutiny.

So how much did the previous government know, and how much of its information did it share with the public and the families as the years went on? As part of that government, I for one was satisfied at first that its decision had been the correct one and was for the best. However, as various pieces of new evidence and new claims came forward over the years, I became increasingly concerned at the often quick and increasingly dogmatic dismissals by the Ministers involved of each piece of new information. It led me to the view, and to express my misgivings, by late 2016 that they both knew more than they were letting on, and were determined not to share what more they knew with anyone else. Was it just a perhaps misguided sense of compassion seeking to spare the families from more pain, or were they concerned about what a manned re-entry might reveal about what actually happened on that day in November 2010?

Whatever the reasons, I became dissatisfied with the way the families were being treated, and came to believe that they had the right to as full a picture as existed, however awful and shocking it might be, but that they were unlikely to get it under the previous government. It was why I joined a cross-party group of politicians calling for the manned re-entry option to be explored further.

For that reason I support this week’s announcement. But it is just a start on a still long journey. My hope has to be that the Pike River families feel by the end of it that they have got the answers they have been seeking, and some comfort from those so that the remains of their loved ones can be laid to rest, and a very sad chapter in our national history be brought gently to a close.


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