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Q+A Interviews West Coast Based MPs

Q+A’s Paul Holmes Interviews West Coast Based MPs – Damien O’Connor & Chris Auchinvole

The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning’s Q+A can also be seen on at,

Q+A is repeated on TVNZ 7 at 9.10pm on Sunday nights and 10.10am and 2.10pm on Mondays.


PAUL You start us off, Damien. Share your sentiments at this time.

DAMIEN O’CONNOR – Labour MP Well, I guess we’re all shocked, but it’s one of these things that the West Coast, unfortunately, has had to get used to over the years. We’re an economy and community based on primary production and mining, and from time to time, unfortunately, in spite of our best efforts, sometimes these disasters happen. And so the community shares the grief, the concern and the worry that’s currently with the families, in particular.

PAUL And not to be negative, Chris, but that worry must be starting to intensify now

CHRIS AUCHINVOLE – National MP Oh, I think it does, Paul. And there are cycles that these processes go through. The community is a very resilient one on the West Coast, and they are calling on their resilience now. The level of community support for the families concerned is unlimited, and it’s going to stay that way.

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PAUL Damien, you know some of the fellows trapped in there, some of the 29, I understand

DAMIEN I do, and I know the families of some of them. I haven’t had a full list; I don’t want it, it’s not necessary. I’m just there to help those people who come into the family centre. The Red Cross is doing a great job, along with all the other volunteer organisations. But I do know some, but the families here who I’ve met, they need the support, and I’m just doing what I can.

PAUL What do you tell the families? Chris, perhaps you’ve been talking to some of the families. What do you tell them when they say, ‘God, we’re so impatient. This waiting can’t go on, it’s killing us’?

CHRIS Well, they don’t actually say that, Paul. They have a pretty good understanding of the circumstances. The predominant thing that Damien and I would do – and we were both operating together yesterday with families – is you principally listen, try to listen to their concerns and alleviate their concerns where you can. But it isn’t a conflict situation yet. Everybody understands the situation, everyone is showing remarkable patience. Because they’re dealing with very very diligent, very experienced crews who do know what they’re doing, and they’re West Coasters.

DAMIEN I think it’s really important to know that the police and the company up there are doing everything they can. The communication, maybe a few hiccups early on yesterday; very good now. I think the families have got direct contact with the company. All the information that they can get is coming back to the families. And most of them are fully aware of the dangers of what is involved in coal mining, and they understand the process that we have to go through here to safely get those guys.

CHRIS But of course, Paul, as you say, we all know some of the people there, and you carry that burden. But in our job as politicians, as representing people, you just put that to one side.

PAUL I guess so. And of course, coal mining is tricky, as you say. Not like copper mining in Chile where there’s no gaseous worries. Coal mining is particularly gaseous and has to be looked after. But this does seem to have been, Damien O’Conner, a particularly temperamental mine.

DAMIEN Oh, it was a big project, it’s one that’s been on the drawing boards for 30 or 40 years. And it’s a very high-quality coal, and with that coal comes gas and methane. But they have the very best international standards applied here, and while we can’t judge at all what happened on the day, I’m sure that hopefully someday we’ll find out what happened and learn some lessons from it.

PAUL I do not wish to negate that, Damien, because this is not the right time, but there is a disturbing report in the Herald on Sunday this morning that there was a big methane build-up there a few weeks back, and that this international expert is quoted – a New Zealander who is a mining expert says he felt the extraction of methane from this mine was extremely poor. He’s quoted as saying that this morning. Would that kind of allegation bother you, Chris?

CHRIS Well, I think the important thing, Paul, is for everyone to understand there is bound to be, and I’ll be pressing for, a considerable inquiry into the whole thing – there’ll be a commission. And it’s then that those things can be considered properly and in the light of expert advice and expert consideration. At the moment, the focus is on the rescue and recovery effort.

PAUL Totally agree with that, and of course this is all about the people of Greymouth watching people they know, and of course it’s all about, critically, the 29 men who do not seem to be able to communicate from inside that mine. What do the families say to you, Damien, when you talk to them?

DAMIEN Well, they are just hoping, they are holding out hope. They want to know the information from the mining company, but they understand probably the situation that might be occurring underground. All they can do is get the information, digest it, and hope and pray, and that’s what most of them are doing. What they are concerned about is that there’s energetic media chasing, through the Facebook pages, inappropriate information, and it’s going out there. Some of it has not been correct. I spoke to a mother this morning and she’s very upset that she has one son who has survived this, one who is still under – the names were mixed. That was just the first mistake, and we’d just ask the media to respect those people. They are living in hope. There’s nothing we should do to question that or to undermine that hope for them.

PAUL Can I just say, on behalf of my colleagues throughout the news media, is we are very sensitive to situations like this, on the whole, and we do our best too, but we’re under pressure as well. But if those sorts of things happen it’s not very nice, is it? Anyway, tell us something about some of those fellows, cos we learn that one is a lovely rugby league up-and-coming lad; one is your West Coast rugby hooker, I understand, Damien. Can you tell us something about the people?

DAMIEN Look, I can’t, I’m not going to. That’s for the families. And while some of the names may have got out there, there’s no official list, and it’s not my job to comment at all. I respect the families and their hope, and the fact that they have loved ones in there. It’s up to them to comment.

CHRIS I can understand why you ask the question, Paul, but the Coast on these occasions, it internalises the trauma. Those who have been rescued thus far, and there have been two thus far, people will wear those as badges of celebration. If there are fatalities, they’ll be worn as badges of remembrance. And the Coast has a capacity – and it’s done it previously, it’ll do it again – to absorb the punishment of the trauma, to consider it, to support those who are undergoing the grief of personal loss, and to bear them along. That’s the way the Coast has always done it, if you look at the tragedies over the years that have occurred. It’s that sort of community, it’s that sort of society.

PAUL And that is appreciated and understood by people right round this country. I think there is a special affection in everyone’s hearts for the Coast. Tony Kokshoorn, the Mayor of Grey District, who seemed, if I may say so, a bloody nice bloke, he said to me on the radio yesterday and again repeated it today, ‘There’s a little bit of the West Coast in every New Zealander.’ And I think that’s right. What do you think he means?

CHRIS Well, we could probably give you alternative points of view. I married into the Coast 38 years ago and lived happily ever after; Damien was born here. But I think the thing is to me, the Celtic coast. I’m Scots born and it’s a very comfortable community, a very comfortable society to sit in. They do suffer a little bit from being told how they should live by every other part of New Zealand. They get a little bit tired of that. And I think there’s been huge support from all parts of the country for the Coast – my emails are full of it, I know Damien’s are the same. And I like to think that people will give the Coast a fresh view, give them a go, don’t always tell them what they should and shouldn’t be doing. And I intend to speak to my friends in Auckland – I lived in Auckland for 17 years – and I think it’s time to go up there, have a chat to Mr Brown, the new Mayor, just show there are ways that people can support the coast without telling them they shouldn’t be going mining.

DAMIEN I think, Paul, the reality is that we’re a pioneering region here, as we are a pioneering nation. And I guess in dealing with nature we’ve had, I guess, incidents and disasters. People understand that reality. And as long as this continues, we have to face up to that. There are many, of course, relatives who have come from the West Coast and gone out into wider New Zealand, and they are passionate with that heritage.

PAUL Well answered. A couple of questions on the subjects that people are texting us and communicating to us about. You two might not be the right people to answer, but I’ll ask you anyway. What about mine-defusing robots? Doesn’t the army have robots that can go in? Could not firemen in full protective gear go in until they find the methane’s too tough and come out? There is a perception, I think, around the country that there is so much caution there’s no action.

DAMIEN Look, I think there will always be an element of risk with whatever we do. But the facts are that it is simply too risky to go into a highly volatile environment of toxic gases with the risk of an explosion. This unfortunate incident was faced by Australian disaster some years ago that went in; more lives were lost. We don’t want that to happen, and we are trusting the judgement – and I think there’s great cooperation and teamwork between the mining company, the mines rescue unit and the police and everyone else involved, fire service – they know best what to do and, believe me, we on behalf of the community are asking the questions to make sure that things are not being held up unnecessarily.

PAUL Thank you both very much for the generosity of your comments.


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