The Whittall prosecution

December 13th, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

West-Coast Tasman MP Damien O’Connor also said the settlement looked like a “stitch-up”.

“The families have said they want justice more than money and this tragedy will have no end until justice is seen to be done,” he said.

Bridges denied yesterday’s announcement left New Zealand’s justice system a “laughing stock”.

“I disagree with that. It was a decision based on legal principles, and determined by the Ministry after clear legal advice from the crown solicitor and the solicitor general.”

He said he was advised of the decision only this week, after the decision had already been made. 

“I had no involvement in it, and that’s as it should be. I think politicians shouldn’t be involved in deciding whether or not to prosecute individuals.”

The decision was made after assessing the level of evidence available and whether or not it was in the public interest, Bridges said.

“In terms of the evidential test, the factors taken into account there included witnesses not being prepared to make themselves available, [and] contest between experts and other pre-trial issues. 

“And then in terms of the public interest, the assessment was that it wasn’t in the public interest to continue with a long, costly trial, with a low probability of success.”

One can sympathise with the families that they wanted to see a conviction in court. But if a trial had a low probability of a conviction, I’m not sure they’d be much happier having to sit through a five month trial, and have Whittall almost certainly found not guilty.

It is worth noting also that the charges Whittall faced could not have resulted in imprisonment. The only thing that could have happened was a fine and the stigma of conviction.

Whether or not he has a formal conviction, I doubt Whittall will ever be employed in the mining industry again.  In fact he may never again be employed by anyone. The stigma of a conviction would not change his employment prospects.

Whittall was hailed as a hero (including by me) for the way he fronted up and openly communicated during the immediate post-explosion stage. But I said at the time:

But he would know, that admiration for his post-explosion performance, will not protect him if it transpires that  Coal has some culpability for what happened. Admiration for fronting up does not remove accountability and responsibility.

The Royal Commission clearly found that there were numerous failings by Pike River, and Whittall. Note however he was mine manager, not CEO, for most of the time. If a prosecution of Whittall had a reasonable chance of success, then it should have continued. But it is very clear from what MBIE have said that their prosecution would have failed. The Judge all but said so herself.

The Herald notes:

Judge Jane Farish was doubtless on the mark when she said yesterday that the likelihood of a prosecution of Peter Whittall was “extremely low” and the case may never have reached trial. As such, it was right for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to drop the 12 health and safety charges against the former Pike River Coal chief executive. 

Unions attacking Whittall

December 6th, 2010 at 6:08 am by David Farrar

Fresh from the PR triumph of attacking Sir Peter Jackson, the CTU continues its strategy of winning over the public by targeting Peter Whittall.

The Press reports:

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly told a Canterbury Workers Educational Association function in Christchurch on Friday that Whittall should have apologised for the tragedy.

“He’s now been called a national hero, but he’s the CEO of that company and he hasn’t apologised,” she said.

“Even if the company did everything right, if it was me, I’d say: `I’m the employer. This has happened and I’m really sorry. I don’t know why, but I’m going to find out why’. But he hasn’t said that.”

Questions about what happened had not been asked, Kelly said.

“This is a very serious event. That mine was open for just over a year. There are 29 miners dead. We’ve got to be more mature about who we honour, how we think about things, what we demand. If that had been public Department of Conservation [land] we would have gone after them and said what had happened.

“But because it’s a company and because the CEO gets to sit next to the Prime Minister at the memorial service, the hard questions have not been asked.”

The CTU just don’t get it. Peter Whittall would not have insisted he be on the stage and one of the speakers at the memorial service. The PM would not have decided who the speakers are. I’m bet you that it was at the request of the miners families, that Whittall was on the stage as one of the speakers.

I’ve remarked on radio how unusual it is that the CEO of the mine where 29 people died has become a national hero. This must be very frustrating for the unions. But the reality is it is the way Whittall conducted himself that has won people over.

But he would know, that admiration for his post-explosion performance, will not protect him if it transpires that Pike River Coal has some culpability for what happened. Admiration for fronting up does not remove accountability and responsibility.

But this is why we have a Royal Commission – to establish the facts. I think it is unwise for various unions to already be trying to denigrate Whittall.

They have not been alone there. Cindy Baxter of Greenpeace facebooked soon after the tragedy a list of Pike River Directors, labelling them “the people who developed the mine that just killed 29 people”. An extra-ordinary rush to judgement.

We also had a Labour MP on day one of the explosion tweet about how the company must be asked the hard questions to prevent a cover-up and how the unions are key to this. This was before we even knew if anyone was dead.

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) national secretary Andrew Little acknowledged Whittall had not sought hero status, but said failures on the part of mine managers or “the guys underground” could have caused the disaster.

“We need to reserve judgment until we get credible answers to questions about why it all happened.

“The company has been treated as somewhat heroic and in a way I think it’s somewhat undeserving.”

Little is correct in saying we need to reserve judgement. My admiration for Whittall’s response to the explosion in no way means that Pike River Coal should not be held accountable if the facts warrant it.

I think Andrew is wrong though in saying the company has been treated as somewhat heroic. Whittall has been, but he is not the company. People have empathised with the fact he knew every single miner killed – in fact had employed them all, and so obviously grieved for them.

In yesterday’s HoS, Matt McCarten had the same theme:

under his watch, 29 men were killed and still lie entombed. Family members and friends of the dead have been robbed of a loved one. Many other workers, as a result of the explosion, will lose their livelihoods.

Unbelievably, the chief executive of this company becomes a media darling.

He did not become a “media darling” for what happened. He gained respect because he did what so many people say they want CEOs to do – he fronted up constantly, he did not spin, he did not lie, he told the truth. He was real.

If you have followed the media coverage you’d think the whole tragedy was just an unavoidable accident.

On the contrary, I think no such thing.