GUYON ESPINER interviews John Key
Prime Minister, thanks very much for making time for us. You
take a proposal for an inquiry to Cabinet on Monday. What is your
thinking in terms of what form this inquiry will take?
JOHN KEY - Prime Minister
Well, the initial advice I had was that it should be a Commission of Inquiry, and there is a precedent for that. If you look at what happened at Cave Creek, that was a Commission of Inquiry. There's always an option for a Royal Commission of Inquiry, and the last one we had in terms of an accident, that I can see, was Erebus. The decision I've made is that I'm going to propose to Cabinet that this is a Royal Commission of Inquiry. And while the differences are subtle, I think it's a demonstration to the 29 families that we are taking this inquiry absolutely seriously, that we are determined to get answers for those families, and that we will leave no stone unturned. So I think a Royal Commission of Inquiry does give the gravitas and does demonstrate the significance of this national tragedy.
GUYON In terms of make-up, I guess you're looking at a three-person inquiry. Um, does this have to have an overseas component to give it independence?
JOHN My sense is that makes good common logic. So what will happen, it'll be chaired by a judge. I'll be taking to Cabinet on Monday a name and recommendation of that judge. The other two members of the Royal Commission haven't yet been determined, but they would have an international component, and they need to have very good expertise. Now, that Royal Commission then draws on a great deal of international expertise, domestic expertise and knowledge, has very wide-ranging powers, absolute powers, to subpoena witnesses, to gather information, to ask questions. We'll also have to set on Monday the terms of reference, but you can take it as a given that those terms of reference will be very broad.
GUYON I guess you've got, in some ways, two parts - how this happened and all the events leading up to the accident happening; and then the adequacy or otherwise of the response. Do you envisage the Commission covering both those, or are they separate inquiries?
JOHN My sense is that they would cover both of those. So we need to give some answers to the families about why their loved ones are no longer here. We know there's been a build-up of methane in the mine; we don't know how that's occurred or why it's occurred. We don't know why the ventilation systems which were in place to take that methane out of the mine didn't work. But we know from scientific evidence it has to build up to a level above 5% to be combustible, so clearly it's done that, and clearly somewhere along the line there's been an ignition source. Now, whose responsibility that is is something I wouldn't want to speculate on.
GUYON Sure, but you said something pertinent there, because you said a build-up of methane. Now, the company seems to be saying that this must have been a surge of methane because otherwise they would have monitored it. Is it your sense - and I know you're not a mining expert, but you've talked to a lot of experts in this field. Is it your sense that there was a slow build-up of methane?
JOHN I have no knowledge of that. So at the end of the day the company may well be right, it may well be a sudden surge, there may be some act of nature that I'm not aware of. I don't have any information on that, no one does, really. We haven't got in the mine yet and we don't have all the data. But what I do know is that those very hard questions have to be asked and answered. Because in the end, the future of Pike River and actually underground coal mining in New Zealand rests on this. We can't put people into environments that are dangerous. We can put people into an environment where there is an element of risk - at the end of the day, lots of jobs in New Zealand have an element of risk. If you're a builder or an electrician you have an element of risk in your job. But there's a difference between risk which is managed and mitigated and a dangerous environment. Now, if this is a dangerous environment we need to understand that.
GUYON What will happen immediately? Will company records have to be seized now so that we actually get hold of that? Do you know if any of that has been done?
JOHN Yes. So there's a number of inquiries that run alongside this. The police run an inquiry, by law they're required to do that; there's a coronial inquiry from the Coroner's Office; also Department of Labour run inquiries. Now, it's quite possible that they will take action prior to the findings of a Royal Commission. That's certainly been the historical path that has been taken. Because the police may well lay charges, you can't rule that out.
GUYON What sort of charges? Manslaughter charges?
JOHN Anything's possible. Who knows? I wouldn't want to speculate on that, but that's what the police have to determine: whether charges are laid and whether there's a responsibility there. Now, that can slow down the Royal Commission's ultimate reporting. But those things happen alongside the Royal Commission.
GUYON Do you have a goal in terms of when this Royal Commission should report?
JOHN It will have a time frame where it's recommended it reports back to us. But as I say, sometimes that process is slowed up because of police inquiries or the others.
GUYON Sure, but are we talking about more than a year?
JOHN Um, hopefully not, but let's see how this thing plays out. In the end, it's about the quality of answers that are received and the questions that are asked and those answers, as opposed to a specific time frame.
GUYON You said on Monday at your post-Cabinet press conference that New Zealand had international standards for mining, safety standards. Have you seen anything that would lead you to change your mind? Do you stand by that comment?
JOHN I do. And that's certainly the advice that I've had and that's the reports I've seen from international experts. But in the end, the Royal Commission is also gonna have to go and look at this situation and ask again those questions. Are all the appropriate safety standards in place? Are we mirroring what happens around the rest of the world? Was this some freak act of nature, or was something else to blame? Are we doing everything right? And they are serious questions that need to be answered.
GUYON Because in the Pike River's own submission to that Department of Labour inquiry they had several references to the acute shortage of mining inspectors. Does it amaze you that there are two mining inspectors for the whole of New Zealand?
JOHN Again, it's not something I wanna speculate on, because in one sense you sit there and say, 'It's only two people,' then you say, 'How many people are actually involved in coal mining in New Zealand? How many coal mines do those inspectors need to go and visit?'
GUYON Four underground coal mines.
JOHN It's four and it's about 450 people, though the numbers are a bit fluid in terms of who might directly be engaged. But at the end of the day, if you said there were four coal mines and you said there were two inspectors, that might be the appropriate settings. That, in the end, is again for others to go and look at, but I think the Department of Labour's view has been it's been the appropriate setting.
GUYON You said a few minutes ago that this was about the future of all underground mining, to a degree. Do we need to close other underground coal mines on the West Coast - there are some operated by Solid Energy very close to that - while we get some of these answers? Is that something that we would consider doing?
JOHN I haven't had any advice to do that, and I would be reluctant to do that. That's one of the reasons why we need to understand very quickly, if we can, what happened at Pike River. Because if you take Spring Creek, for instance, which is Solid Energy's mine, it's been operating for 10 years. It's had a very good safety record.
GUYON Do they have different standards than a private company?
JOHN I can't answer that question, but I'd be surprised if they did. Their settings would be set, again, by the legislation that surrounds this area, by the Department of Labour requirements, etc, etc. But I'm not an expert in these technical areas, and that's something we need to look at.
GUYON Sure. You were gonna remove 7,000 hectares of land from Schedule 4 protection, including about 3,300 in Paparoa National Park, where this mine is. In all the work the Cabinet did, did you look at mining safety?
JOHN No. That was never a consideration. The consideration was around the environmental benefits. I think my understanding from the Paparoa may be incorrect, but at the time it was a late addition into Schedule 4 and actually wasn't supported by the Department of Conservation at the time.
GUYON I guess everyone's wise in hindsight, but if I look back to a speech Gerry Brownlee made in 2009, he talked about Pike River Coal carrying out exploration work on the coal seam gas potential of that mine, and he talked about it potentially looking at establishing small-scale on-site electricity generation from the methane, so obviously there was a recognition that there was a lot of gas in that area. Let's cut to the chase - is there a ministerial responsibility issue here, either for Gerry Brownlee or for the Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson on this?
JOHN Again, the questions will need to be asked - and they're appropriate questions, we're not trying to hide from that - but my top-line view would be no. We follow advice, and to the best of my knowledge we haven't crossed that advice and done something different. Gerry Brownlee's comments would simply be a reflection of the fact that it's well known that there's methane in that area, and there's always methane in coal mining, and I don't think that's a new revelation.
GUYON No, it's not, but that's part of the point, isn't it? I mean, 1967 when the big disaster happened in Strongman Mine. It's not that long ago, is it, in some ways. Did we forget the lessons of history to a degree here?
JOHN I don't think so. We've moved on. I mean, if you think about Strongman, 43 years on I think most New Zealanders would rightfully expect - I certainly, as prime minister, would expect - that we're now engaging modern techniques for the monitoring of methane, modern safety techniques. I mean, the world has moved on rapidly. In 1967 when Strongman took place, there wouldn't have been a camera sitting at the entry portal into the mine; there wouldn't have been all those techniques and computerised technology that we now have. So I can't tell you what's gone terribly wrong at Pike River. I know something, tragically, has gone wrong, and I know methane levels have to be above a level where they're combustible and something's ignited that. But what's caused the build-up and what caused the explosion are matters for the Royal Commission. But what I do know is we have to get answers to those.
GUYON The environmental record down there, they painstakingly protected the environment - they had to, to get permission to do it. I'm just wondering whether we sacrificed safety at all in that, because they can't build roads in the area, that must have some safety impact. Did we sacrifice safety to protect the environment?
JOHN Well, again, I wouldn't want to speculate on that. But one would assume-and Pike River's been in the planning and the building phase for a very long period of time. Started with the previous government and was actually opened by Gerry Brownlee as one of his firsts acts as minister. So the reality is that a lot of people look at this situation, sign off on it, and if there was an unacceptable trade-off between safety and the environment, then I don't think the mine would have been allowed to be opened. There are always people who are cool heads, who are a long way away from the investment, very dispassionate about these things, who simply make decisions on the back of safety. So everyone at the time must have been comfortable that the mine met with international standards and met with the standards required in New Zealand to provide a safe working environment. Now, that hasn't proven to be the case, but why it hasn't been proven to be the case is something for the Royal Commission.
GUYON The company seems to believe that they can reopen the mine. Are you going to allow that to happen?
JOHN It can't reopen and it won't reopen until we've identified what's caused the build-up in methane or the sudden emergence of methane above acceptable levels-
GUYON Okay, so this is an important point. So you're saying it won't reopen until the Royal Commission reports back?
JOHN I think it can't reopen until we at least get answers to those questions, and one would assume the Royal Commission would be the body that would determine that in their report about what caused the explosion, and if something went wrong, what went wrong and why. Clearly something's gone wrong because 29 people have lost their lives. But why it's gone wrong - we need to determine that. Because unless we understand that, in all good conscience we can't send other people into the mine, into an environment that you haven't determined what's caused the deaths in the first place. So we need answers to those questions. And what the long-term future is of Pike River, I can't speculate on that. What I do know is it's claimed the lives of 29 men. They should be home with their families and they're not, and I owe it to those families to make sure that they get answers to those questions, and I'm determined to do that.