Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Coal and the Coast: a Reflection on the Pike River Disaster, by Paul Maunder (Canterbury University Press, 2012), 112 pp., $25.
It might be uncomfortable to consider, but pressing in on me as I write this — and on whoever reads it — are the ghosts of hundreds of Chinese coal miners: those who die every week in unsafe mines to fuel the booming economy of the renascent Red Dragon and thus supply us in the West with almost all of our consumer goods. Every phase of the Industrial Revolution has had a human cost, in the blood of peasants driven or lured off the land into burgeoning urban centres to make a new life for themselves and a fat profit for the owners of the factories and the mines.
Coal was once the hero in this drama and is now the villain: the sooty elephant in the warming global room. Cheap goods powered by mining cost lives, whether in the remote provinces of China where the miners die in pursuit of coal, or in the effects of global warming on poor communities ravaged by flash floods and rising oceans, or in our own backyard — the West Coast coal fields of the Paparoa Ranges where Paul Maunder has set his cautionary tale of a tragedy that was waiting to happen.
You don’t have to travel far on the Coast to find the memorials to the mine dead, killed in a continuing series of underground disasters. Brunner, 1896, sixty-five men and boys; Strongman, 1967, nineteen men; and now with Pike River, November 2010, there are twenty-nine more. These are the more notable disasters: there are numerous other events where fewer died, but hearts were equally broken. Mining is and has always been a dangerous occupation, but as long as unionism has flourished in the camaraderie of the pit and its shared dangers, miners have banded together to minimise the perils of working underground by improving health and safety practices and seeing regulations enacted in the workplace.
The chapter on this last point — the book is a series of linked essays — is probably the best and the most troubling in what is a unique, challenging, and sometimes uneven approach to the recent disaster. Uneven because in spite of its compelling subject, it cycles through a range of genre (not a fault in itself) that do not always seem to cohere: postmodern theory, diary entries, history, a Marxist-communalist critique of neo-liberalism in New Zealand post-1980, a section on climate change, interviews with some local miners, and final section, ‘Dreaming’, where Maunder reminds us (after Badiou, one of his theorists) that ‘the task of this book, rather than to descend into cynicism, has been to name this event, to see it evolve for a moment in a consistent way and to glimpse the future.’
This is a brave mission: out of the wreckage and the ongoing pain of the grieving ones left behind and the simmering anger about the twenty-nine miners’ remains entombed in those ranges, Paul Maunder has taken it upon himself to stand back and review the past, the present, and the future of coal mining here and elsewhere. His overarching conclusion seems to be that the lessons of the Pike River tragedy might find an outcome as the dark heralds of a necessary new age: local autonomy, regional development, a transition economy which moves away from the failed and discredited policies of neo-liberalism. ‘Those buried in the mountains,’ he concludes, ‘have become prophets of the future.’ To their surprise, they might find (were they able) that this must be a future substantially free of that global warming bad guy, Old King Coal.
That is why I say brave: I can imagine some locals — those Coasters the author has told me he wrote the book for — might not like his leftwing green-tending solutions. Yet it is true as he writes that many of these same locals — miners included — feel themselves in political limbo after the Labour Party’s ‘betrayals’ of the Coast and Coasters since 1984. Some of the interviews with miners — including one with my former Blackball neighbour Les Neilson, bring the poignant tang of authentic experience to what is in many ways, a pointy-headed discourse. This same Les — born in 1944, a third generation miner with a son now in the pit — remembers as a six-year-old crying when Peter Fraser, the wartime Labour Prime Minister, died in 1950.
Can we imagine anyone — aside from family and friends — crying when John Key eventually goes to the Great Beyond? Unlikely indeed: those local, unionised, tight-knit, tradition-bound mining communities Les and I grew up in, nourished by the stories of our Labour heroes, have gone, possibly forever. The Miners Hall, that great communal cathedral of the weekend pictures (not ‘movies’), a place where the union held its meetings, where dances and all manner of communal concerts and shindigs went on, was torn down by the retired miners themselves in the 1980s, twenty years after the mines had closed and the hippies were threatening to take over the derelict building.
Les Neilson’s and others’ pithy reflections on mining and politics season the arguments Maunder is making on national and global issues that the Pike River explosion has uncovered once more. That underground world is a foreign country to most townies, and of all Helen Clark’s ‘feral Coasters’, I would venture that miners are the least known and understood. I’m grateful to the author for putting their humanity on record, especially for the priceless account of Les going underground with his Dad, ‘old Les’, their rat-chasing terrier in tow. Being so low to ground, the dog would sometimes ‘hit a patch of “coal damp” (a mix of CO2 and nitrogen) and collapse for lack of air’. Old Les would pick him up and ‘play him like the bagpipes’, pushing air back into the wee dog’s lungs. Off he would trot, revived, to kill more rats.
Charming as such anecdotes are however, they struggle to lighten the moral darkness that hangs over this account of the deliberate dismantling of legislative safety precautions in the mining industry since the National government came to power in 1990. How it stuck in my craw in December 2010 to see John Key and his National ministers there on the dais at the Memorial Service at Omoto Racecourse, with the ineffectual and soon-to-be-replaced Kate Wilkinson as Minister of Labour beside him. Her early protestations that the explosion had nothing to do with inadequate workplace safety regulations and a poorly resourced Labour Department inspectorate have been clearly shown as hollow by the expert witnesses who have since fronted the Commission of Enquiry in Greymouth.
Maunder is excellent on the history of mine safety regulations and the one hundred years of slow progress from the time the first Liberal Government established a Department of Labour in 1891, until a century later when the Bolger government enacted legislation in 1992 that ‘took away the right for workers in coal mines to elect check inspectors.’ These were worker representatives, responsible to the men, to the management and to the regulatory body, tasked to take an active role in promoting safe underground practices. This was the so-called ‘three-legged stool’: labour, management and government, working together to promote workplace safety. National’s legislative changes were part of an overall design — seen most clearly in the infamous Employment Contracts Act of the same year — to break the unions and to divide workers into individuals bent on self-interest and more often than not, self-preservation.
This is where Maunder’s critique of neo-liberalism and monetarist philosophies bares its teeth: the miners were the first ones to know what the mine was doing and what the dangers were; the first to see a mate doing something unsafe; the first also to feel the effects of bad management practices and the dangers these exposed them to. All this is relevant to whatever happened at Pike River; of course the workers there were neither saints, nor helpless victims. They chose to go underground, they took risks and many liked the mining and communal life in the Grey Valley with its slower pace and wilderness freedoms. But what they had a right to expect — in the light of a century’s wisdom since 1891, and especially since the nineteen dead men of Strongman 1967 had within living memory delivered a message from beyond the grave — was to have those check inspectors still in place. Someone has blood on their hands is the inescapable message here — but who will put those hands up, we wonder, along with Maunder and the mining community he lives in and speaks from?
No, he is not a miner: he’s an ambulance volunteer, a community worker, a writer, a playwright, a curator of working-class history in a town not always well disposed to outsiders and intellectuals — a voice in the wilderness perhaps, but a courageous voice, and a necessary prophet. Whatever readers might make of his politics — Coasters and as well as others — this is an important and unique work of cultural history and a vital polemic. It should be on the reading list of every member of the House of Representatives when it comes to reforming work-place safety and looking once more at sustainable regional development. The future is landing, Maunder writes, and if we don’t want it to look like the chilling picture on the book’s cover (gouts of flame bursting out of the mine’s ventilation shaft), we need to reassess our communal resources, our local strengths, and hold our leaders to closer account. I could almost swear that this compelling image looks like nothing less than an iron monster arisen from hell and spouting fire, hungry to consume the people and the land.
JEFFREY PAPAROA HOLMAN teaches at the University of Canterbury. His new book of poetry, Shaken Down 6.3, is published by Canterbury University Press.