Ask any New Zealander to reflect on the past last five years in New Zealand, and two tragedies are likely to spring to mind: the Canterbury earthquakes and Pike River Mine. Both struck the nation by surprise: prior to the first Canterbury quakes, no one even knew there was a fault line sitting restlessly below the Canterbury plains.
Similarly, few people even knew of the name “Pike River Coal”, let alone the massive financial pressures it was facing, or its flagrant disregard for health and safety. Both tragedies were characterised by high death tolls, and both showed the impact of the National Government’s deregulation agenda in the 1990s – and the failure of subsequent Labour Governments to reverse those changes.
The stories of both Pike and Christchurch are by no means over; these books are far from closed. In the case of Christchurch, the rebuild is only just beginning; the ground still trembles, and people still face the very frustrations they faced immediately after quake. The Pike tragedy is in somewhat of a different place.
Just under six months ago, it was announced that the MBIE prosecution against Peter Whittall, the CEO of the company at the time of the explosion and Pike’s first employee back in 2005, for breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act had been dropped. It left the Pike story in a precarious place, where it seemed no one was going to be held accountable at law for the wholly preventable death of 29 men. For anyone familiar with Pike, it simply beggared belief.
When the news that Whittall’s prosecution would be dropped broke in December 2013, I did not hear one word. It was reported, absolutely: this is a story that many New Zealanders follow closely. Yet I did not see one angry tweet, not one Facebook rant, and no outraged blog posts. That is not to say they did not exist – far from it. Many people – especially the families of the 29 mine – were devastated by yet another knock back in what had become a story as much about unfilled promises and knock backs as the disaster in the mine itself. However, in the small circles of the “liberal elite”, there wasn’t as much as a murmur.
When I read Rebecca Macfie’s book Tragedy at Pike River, I felt incensed, but I also felt ignorant. I couldn’t believe this corporate scandal had been exposed, and yet up until that point I hadn’t even been aware of its existence (beyond sketchy details of the explosion itself). I interviewed Macfie for a piece prior to her talk at Auckland Writers Festival on Saturday, and I was left, again, feeling outraged that this tragedy could play out before our eyes, in clear sight, and yet no one would be held accountable.
When I published my piece, something peculiar happened: nothing happened. No one in my usual liberal circles seemed interested. My editor said it was one of the best things I’d ever written, but instead a post I had once written on the tiny screen of my iPhone while sitting on the bus had generated hundreds of responses and shares. People had been more outraged by my comments on the irrelevant Bob Jones than the failures of our government, a company and its directors to protect the lives of those men down that mine.
I went along to Macfie’s address at the Writers Festival. She was simply brilliant. She talked about how just two days prior to the Pike explosion a group of shareholders had been down the mine. “How different this story would’ve been if it had exploded then,” she remarked.
Macfie’s talk at Writers Festival showed how many people care about what happened in Pike River. However, in a room where there was standing room only, I was one of perhaps ten people under the age of 40. Where were the outraged young liberal bloggers and tweeters? Where were the people I converse with about social justice every day? Where were the Young Labour activists?
This is not a slight against any one of those people. It is, however, a challenge. It’s a challenge for us to fight the working class battles. It is so important we challenge, sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, but let’s also talk about class. Those men down that mine were not the liberal elite, and they might not be people we know or can even relate to, but they were part of a group that is systematically marginalised and whose rights are constantly under threat – and that in itself should be enough to command action.
When I raised these points on Twitter, a number of people suggested people feel disengaged because the issues are simply too big and too hard. I don’t accept that for a second. Class battles are big, just like battles of gender and race. But if you’re prepared to engage, there are points of pressure – just like any battle.
Pike is a book that’s still open: we can demand action from the police in terms of private prosecution against Whittall, we can support the CTU’s judicial review efforts (be it by donations or just raising awareness and media interest), and we can make Pike an election issue. Beyond Pike, if you’re not a union member, become one. We can challenge left-ist parties to strength our labour laws, especially in terms of union rights in an employment context. We can look at corporate accountability, especially where there is loss of life. We can connect the dots between the deregulation of the 1990s and what is happening now, and ensure it doesn’t happen again. There are simply no limits.
And as a start point, we can read Macfie’s book, and push for accountability for what happened down that mine four years ago.