The PM's Pike River problems - time to stop digging

John Key's brought some messy baggage back from Australia, and finds himself in a hole of his own making at a very sensitive time politically. Yet every new word just seems to make it worse

When it comes to talking about mining, the Prime Minister should realise he's in a hole and stop digging. But from his interview with The Australian to his unconvincing performance during today's Question Time, he just can't seem to step away from the pit opening in front of him.

Yesterday, The Australian ran a news story that quoted John Key acknowledging that questions needed to be asked about mine safety standards in this country. He went on to say that a single-entry uphill mine, as Pike River was, would not have been legal in Australia. He stressed that he couldn't give a complete answer because of the royal commission that's under way, but added that no dount changes would be recommended.

Key's statements weren't in error, nor were they out of kilter with public opinion. The problem is that they were hypocritical - the great political crime - and that they muddied the waters around the commission and looked too political. The newspaper itself reported it this way:

Mr Key's admissions mark a reversal of the staunch defence of New Zealand's mining regulations that he and Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee mounted immediately after the disaster.

After the explosion, The Australian reported claims by Australian mining experts saying the Pike River operation did not have safety equipment that would be standard issue in Australia.

"I have no reason to believe that New Zealand safety standards are any less than Australia's," Mr Key said at the time.

Phil Goff pounced early yestrday afternoon, adding:

“This sudden change in his position is quite incredible given just a month ago he publicly condemned a union representative for questioning safety at the mine, accusing her of being “churlish and insensitive”.

“He also said it was “dangerous” to raise concerns about safety issues when the Royal Commission of Inquiry was still underway. Yet he is now making similar claims himself while the Commission is still underway."

The Prime Minister tried to get his feet back on solid ground, but instantly slipped. He told the Herald that he wasn't saying that New Zealand had lower safety standards, merely that the countries standards were "different". He stood by his statements last year that to his knowledge New Zealand standards are on a par with Australia.

But that's nonsense. It's clear that New Zealand mining safety standards are a) lower than Australia's and b) not world's best practice.

That these men shouldn't have died, and that their deaths were in part due to a lack of standards was clear within three days of the second explosiion. One of America's top mining experts, the boss of mine safety under Bill Clinton and the lead investigator into the eerily similar Upper Big Branch explosion in April last year, Davitt McAteer, said this on Q+A on November 28:

We should not have accidents of this magnitude, of this size in developed countries, or for that matter around the world, because we know how to mine safely, we know how to mine without explosions; we do it day in and day out.  We know where the risks are and we know what precautions need to be taken, and we need to be applying those on a daily basis, and we need to make certain that we build into precautions redundant systems that can keep explosions from expanding and killing large numbers of people.

"We know how to mine safely". In other words, a deadly mine is simply one that isn't doing everything we know how to do. In the same programme New Zealand expert Dave Feickert said we ditched our mine inspectorate in the 1990s because it was "too expensive" and that he had doubts about Pike River's standards. This ain't new.

Key also claimed late yesterday that mine safety was indeed "a matter for the royal commission". But he wasn't talking about mine safety, he was talking about mine construction and design. And that's entirely different.

Except it isn't. The commission's terms of reference say it should look at any factor that might have caused the explosion and the deaths of the miners, including the mines "practices", "operations" and "management". There are no limitations to what the commission can investigate, so mine design could well be a factor for them to consider.

So his comments certainly tread on ground that the commission will cover, thereby putting the pressure of Prime Ministerial expectation on the judges.

Do his words amount to some kind of contempt of the commission? No. It's hardly damning stuff. But if the judges now focus on mine design rather than safety standards or any other factor, the questions will naturally arise whether they succumbed to political influence. It's, well, awkward.

The PM's latest gaffe came in Question Time today, when Annette King probed him on all this. She asked why it was "dangerous" for Helen Kelly to suggest Pike River was unsafe, but ok for him to say similar things. He agreed it would be hypocritical if he had been talking about mine safety, but he was talking about design differences, not safety.

Except that Key helpfully read out the transcript from the interview, clearly showing that the journalist's question was specifically about, er, mining safety and how New Zealand's record wasn't as good as Australia's. And Key quoted himself answering that, while he couldn't fully comment because of the commission, "we need to ask some questions whether mine safety standards are high enough".

Admittedly, he then said, "What is true..." and carried on to talk about the mine's construction. But this was clearly, by his own words, a discussion about mine safety. The context was mine safety. And clearly by the newspaper report, the journalist understood the conversation to be about, as he said in his intro, "mining safety regulations". As did other media.

I suspect Key is reading public opinion very well, as he typically does. At the time of the disaster, the genuine grief of Peter Whitall won sympathy for Pike River Ltd and the PM was happy to stand beside the man and the company. However, thanks to journalists – and, to be fair, unionists – a different picture has emerged and the mine and the company have become more suspect. If you haven't seen Sunday's most recent work on Pike River's safety standards, see this.

And the Pike River families have turned more critical in recent weeks, leading some of these safety concerns. Yet this time Key's famous attenae aren't enough. It's not about empathy, but consistency and statesmanship.

The political issue around all this for National is that the government is entering a vrey sensitive period. The Christchurch land announcements tomorrow will certainly anger some, especially given the bubbling frustration of the past week. It hardly needs to be explaining itself or looking like a gaggle of shifty politicians when it comes to Pike River. Grief, especially public grief, is often an emotion looking for someone to blame.

Get this period wrong, offend the wounds of Christchurch or Greymouth, and that poll lead could start to close. So Key needs to stop splitting hairs. The man who's popularity relies on his common touch is at risk of looking slippery. A little humility would go a long way about now; perhaps even a statement admitting he messed up in that interview.

The trip to Australia has not been a success. And next week he's off to India, leaving Gerry Brownlee in charge of Christchurch and again exposing himself to tricky foreign media. His relaxed demeanour, casual likeability (and its flipside, the desire to be liked) and loose style have cost him this week. They have been at the heart of his political strength, but sooner than expected are popping up as liabilities.

He'll need to take himself in hand because the next few days and weeks are a time for 'disciplined John', not 'smile and wave John'.