Is underground mining safe in New Zealand?
As I have previously answered, of course we have concerns about mine safety, which is why we have taken the matter of Pike River and the tragedy that happened there very seriously. It is why we have established a royal commission of inquiry in relation to that. In addition, in order to get immediate assurance, a safety audit of all operating underground coalmines in New Zealand was recently completed by two independent Australian mining specialists. The audit did not reveal that a dangerous situation was imminent in operating underground coalmines in New Zealand.
Does she think it is good enough that of the four recent ignitions in the Spring Creek underground coalmine, the mines inspectorate had the resources to follow up only two?
Those issues have been raised as evidence at the royal commission. Therefore, that is the appropriate place for them to be considered and I am reluctant to comment further on that.
I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister does, of course, have the opportunity to say that it is not in the public interest for her to answer a question, but if that is the case, she should say that. The proceedings before the royal commission are not sub judice in any way.
I hear what the member is saying but I think the Minister was implying, in the way she answered, that she did not consider it to be in the public interest to second-guess the royal commission. That is not an unreasonable position for a Minister to take.
Does she agree with international mine safety expert Dave Feickert, who said in the New Zealand Herald yesterday: “Pike River represents a spectacular failure of self-regulating companies in a high-risk industry. Why we allowed an economic theory of business competition to persuade us that competing companies would co-operate on mine safety is something else I will never fathom.”?
Again, I am reluctant to comment on evidence that is before the royal commission. Whilst those matters are before the royal commission—and some matters will be before the royal commission—I think it is inappropriate to make comments that may be seen as compromising or influencing its determination.
Is the Minister aware that as a result of the Kaye and Party mine disaster in 1940, in which five people were killed, all underground mines need to be connected by phone to emergency assistance on the surface?
Those suggestions are also under the ambit of the royal commission of inquiry. It is a wide-ranging inquiry and I am reluctant to make further comments until those determinations have been made by the inquiry.
I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The question simply asked whether she was aware of a particular rule about the requirement for a phone connection between underground mines and emergency assistance on the surface. That does not seem to me to be a matter that is currently before the royal commission in the manner that the Minister suggests.
I refer you, Mr Speaker, to Speaker’s ruling 31/6. It is acknowledged in a very old ruling of Speaker Statham that “The House is not debarred from discussing a matter that is before a Royal commission as would be the case if the matter were before a court.” So questions are not necessarily out of order, but they are questions of propriety, as “members should avoid embarrassing the commission by any statements they make.” We have two royal commissions and I believe it is extremely important that we avoid any suggestion of embarrassing the members of the commission in doing their work, or crossing those bounds of propriety from general questions on a particular subject and moving into an area that may have been, for example, a couple of days ago the subject of evidence and cross-examination and is a live issue before the commission. In my submission, the Minister has taken exactly the right approach.
I cannot see how it could possibly be an embarrassment to the royal commission to say whether the Minister is aware of a requirement for such a phone link between underground and emergency assistance on the surface.
I think there is another point of principle here too, and that is that Governments, of course, cause the creation of royal commissions of inquiry. If by doing that the Government could effectively oust the right of parliamentarians to discuss issues of public interest, that would pervert the course of this Parliament. So long as the question is not embarrassing to the royal commission in the way in which the Speaker’s ruling states, it should be perfectly in order.
No, I do not want to go on with this indefinitely. I propose to invite the member to repeat his question, because I have some sympathy with the point he makes. Whether a Minister is aware of an alleged rule—I do not know whether such a rule exists—cannot, in my view, compromise the royal commission. But we must trust the Minister’s judgment in respect of issues that may not be in the public interest because of implications for the royal commission. I invite the member to repeat his question. As members have alluded to under the serious points of order raised, it is not out of order to ask questions. There must be some questions that it is OK and in the public interest to answer. I invite the member to repeat his question.
Is she aware that as a result of the Kaye and Party mine disaster in 1940, in which five people were killed, all underground mines need to be connected by phone to emergency assistance on the surface?
I concede that I am not aware of all the technical specifications or requirements of mining standards, mining regulations, or mining practices. I am not a miner.
Does the Minister think it is good enough that when the two Pike River survivors struggled to the phone in the Pike River mine and called the Pike River surface controller, their call went to an answerphone?
I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. That question crosses the line into something that is potentially very embarrassing to the commission. The commission is dealing with these very factual issues at this time. It is quite improper.
I appreciate the lecture from the Attorney-General, but the judgment as to whether a matter is not in the public interest—[ Interruption] I am on my feet, if it has escaped the Attorney-General’s notice. This is a matter for the Minister. The Minister must be the sole judge as to whether answering a question is in the public interest. That is a matter for the Minister. The Minister can certainly seek the advice of the Attorney-General around these issues prior to question time or at any stage during question time, but it is up to the Minister to make that determination.
Once again, I am reluctant to make any comment on evidence that may or may not be before the royal commission of inquiry, because I do not want to be seen to compromise or influence its determination.
Does the Minister think it is good enough that when the two—[ Interruption]
I apologise to the member. I say to colleagues in the House that these are obviously serious questions, and I must be able to hear them if I am to make a serious attempt to referee—to use the term my learned colleague has suggested should guide me. On a serious issue like this, it is not helpful to have unnecessary interjections.
I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Just to make it clear, I am not legally qualified and I have not been called to the Bar. Therefore, I am not learned.
I apologise to the honourable member. The same would apply to me, I am sure.
Does the Minister think it is good enough that when the two Pike River survivors finally got through to the control room and were instructed to keep making their way out of the mine, there was nobody and no supplies—not even a drink of water or first aid—there to meet them, leaving them to make their own way to find help?
The issue is not what I think is good enough; the issue is what the commission of inquiry thinks is good enough, and how it makes its determination accordingly.
Does the Minister still agree with John Key’s comment on 22 November 2010: “I have no reason to believe that New Zealand’s safety standards are any less than Australia’s, and in fact our safety record for the most part has been very good.”?
Given the clear and mounting evidence that changes made in the 1990s to both the mines inspection system and mine safety regulations have significantly reduced safety standards, what possible reason is there now to wait until the royal commission reports before making urgent moves to improve the safety of workers going underground every day right now?
Those kinds of assertions and assumptions, whether true or false, will be tested by the royal commission. We await its determination.
Will the Minister resign if the royal commission finds that her department failed in its duty to protect the Pike River miners, as the then Minister of Conservation, the Hon Denis Marshall, did over Cave Creek?
I will await the determination from the royal commission of inquiry. I will be very interested in seeing what it finds out.
How will restricting the access of union representatives to workplaces, even where health and safety issues arise, make underground mining in New Zealand safer?
The access of unions to workplaces is still available. It is just subject to the employer’s consent, which cannot be unreasonably withheld.
Why is the Government so resistant to miners with practical experience working underground having the power to act and, if necessary, stop work where health and safety issues put lives at risk, preferring instead to leave all health and safety issues to management alone, for whom production and profits are a priority?
The adequacy of the mining inspectorate, the importance or otherwise of check inspectors, and the effectiveness of laws and regulations are all matters that will be properly considered by the commission of inquiry. Until it makes that determination I am reluctant to make further comment for fear of compromising, jeopardising, or influencing its determination.
Is it correct to interpret from the Minister’s answers to Labour and the Greens that she will simply wait for the royal commission to report until she does anything about mine safety?
Until the royal commission of inquiry makes its findings, we will wait accordingly. That is the proper course.
If evidence before the royal commission shows a clear path for improving safety in mines, will she take that course before the commission reports?