The rush to deregulate can have lethal consequences
Deregulation has been given not just a bad name but a lethal reputation in the wake of an inquiry into New Zealand’s 2010 Pike River mining tragedy which took 29 lives.
All levels of New Zealand’s administration are being urged to re-assess that nation’s hairy-chested commitment to limiting government involvement in the running of businesses. That has included a shrinking of government imposition and enforcement of safety precautions.
It’s not just a New Zealand issue. In Australia deregulation is being seen as a short-cut to revenue retrieval with Queensland Premier Campbell Newman demonstrating a ruthlessness this small-government movement admires. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott also has promoted deregulation as a means of saving taxpayer money and the government of Julia Gillard will look at every claim of regulatory excess to save cash, and rescue its promised Budget surplus.
There is a bipartisan acceptance that reducing the public service is one way to cut costs. In dispute are the means and the extent of cuts, but the principle is broadly endorsed by major parties.
Also obvious in public debate, the deregulation lobby is ready with trite cries of ``nanny state’’ and ``bureaucracy gone mad’’ in greeting many proposals for official public protection.
In some lobbying quarters those proposals don’t get judged on merit but against an idealised standard of compassionate market forces ensuring big profits, safe workplaces and secure environmental priorities.
The Pike River Royal Commission identified how dangerous that notion can be, as Prime Minister John Key acknowledged as he accepted recommendations for tighter safety laws.
“It is inevitably going to lead to a far more proscriptive regime. That is the reality,” said Mr Key.
The Royal Commission found all 29 deaths - no bodies have been recovered - were preventable. New Zealand has twice the workplace accident rate of Australia and four times that of Britain.
Jed O’Connell of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union has told ABC radio a culture change was needed.
“It starts off with the deregulation, it’s followed up with the rhetoric around nanny states, government intervention. It develops a sort of bravado amongst New Zealanders and dependent operators,” said Mr O’Connell.
“So there’s a real cultural thing that has developed over the years. It’s going to take a real culture change to this country to get this right.”
The NZ Government hasn’t been too harsh on itself after the damning report delivered on Monday. The responsible minister, Labour Minister at time Kate Wilkinson, has quit that port folio but retained others and still sits in cabinet.
This would amount to survival for a minister whose department issued permits when they were not warranted, ignored warnings of safety dangers, and in some instances left it up to the mining company to manage the deadly risks building up at the site.
The Government has been accused of the following:
* The company, despite having no experience in underground mining, was granted a permit to mine with no scrutiny of its health and safety plans;
* Department of Labour mining inspectorate was reduced to two inspectors with no training or support systems;
* Physical inspections made but were not provided with appropriate information;
* The department ordered improvement in ventilation system at Pike River but did not check that the work had been done;
* The department trusted the company to comply with negotiated health and safety standards.
“There were numerous warnings of a potential catastrophe at Pike River,” the Royal Commission found.
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