It’s been four years since The Australian journo Ean Higgins landed in Kiwi Nationals leader Gerry Brownlee’s worst graces, after the reporter asked a rather pointed question at a Pike River press conference. And he’s still persona non grata over the Tasman, if recent comments by Brownlee are any indication.
Here’s the backstory. In 2010, the Pike River coal mine in New Zealand blew up in a gas explosion that killed 29 men, including two Australians. Higgins was one of a handful of Australian journalists sent over to cover the disaster. At a press conference in Greymouth, the Australian reporters were getting restless at precautions taken by the rescue crew, who were waiting to be given the all-clear to enter the mine.
A Seven News journalist asked Pike River Coal Mine CEO Peter Whittall whether he could imagine New York firefighters waiting outside the World Trade Center if there were lives in the balance. Whittall refused to be drawn on the hypothetical. But it teed up Higgins to ask what, in New Zealand at least, became an immortal example of Aussie arrogance:
“Superintendent Knowles, that leads to another question, there have been comments today by a variety of sources by Laurie Drew, by other members of the families, by Andrew Vickers, a mining unionist in Australia and by an Australian mining expert. If this was happening in Australia, the people that would be in charge would be the mining manager, and with the assistance of the union and technical support and was put – the people that actually know what’s going on.
“And the question was asked by all of these people, why are they not making the decisions? Why are they not calling the shots? Why is it the local country cop chief doing it? To use their words.”
A tough question, but did it go too far? Kiwi politicians certainly thought so. Kiwi Police Minister Judith Collins said it was “disgraceful”, and said it was “cheapening the work of other journalists”.
Then energy minster Brownlee was one of the most offended. He called Higgins “boorish” and an “utter tosspot”. He also took objection to one of Higgins’ stories, where the journalist said rescuers are pinning their hopes on the possibility that four men caught in the blast might still be alive. Brownlee said the story was incorrect and “distressing for the families”.
Recalling the saga for the piece on the Oz last Monday, Higgins said his editors realised the situation was unsustainable, and “partly for my own safety” pulled him out of the country. But, he said, history showed he was right to focus on the unsuitability of the people leading the management the crisis:
“The New Zealand Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy found, surprise, surprise, that policemen, however good, are not the right people to be in charge of a mining crisis.
“Referring to the police making the calls, the royal commission said: ‘Instead of decisions being made at Pike River, where mining and rescue experts were gathered, many were made by non-experts in Wellington.’
“I did prime-time interviews with New Zealand radio stations who rang me up asking how it felt to have been proved right. (I was, of course, exceedingly modest.)”
Brownlee disagrees, slamming how “inappropriate” it was for Higgins to revisit the issue now. “It was never about me, it was about 29 men who died,” he told the paper, adding that Higgins was wrong to take triumph from the royal commission’s findings as police had done the best they could under the circumstances. The mayor of Grey District joined in the sledging, saying Higgins was “insensitive” and “had thrown a spanner in the works” for those trying to keep the situation stable.
The Sunday Star-Times lamented Higgins’ essay as “inflammatory”, highlighting his depiction of New Zealand as “small, meek, mild democracy” and his description of his having dinner with journalists in “the only good restaurant” in Greymouth. Brownlee said Higgins cut a lonely figure in Greymouth. “I’m staggered to learn he had dinner with anyone,” the politician quipped. “Perhaps someone will put their hand up and identify themselves, if only to be given the respect they so richly deserve for their charity.”
Brownlee also described Higgins as “a disgraceful ambassador for his country… He has no one to blame for having to leave but himself.”
Higgins didn’t respond to Crikey’s request for comment.