The Larger Lessons of Westray
[ICS comment: There have been numerous commentaries on the Westray coal mine disaster, on the causes of the explosion and on the political climate that nurtured a pervasive culture accurately described by Westray Public Inquiry Commissioner Peter Richard in words such as apathy, indifference, mistakes, omissions, incompetence, stupidity, and neglect. In my opinion, Ralph Surette's article (below) is the most incisive Westray commentary that I have seen.]
The Larger Lessons of Westray
Are Obvious, but Unmentioned
By Ralph Surette
This article appeared in
The Chronicle-Herald and The Mail-Star
Halifax, Friday, 12 December 1997
Before the report of the Westray inquiry drifts off to official report limbo, let's draw a few yet-undrawn conclusions as regards the nature of bureaucracy and public affairs as they exist in Nova Scotia.
I'm disappointed that Judge Peter Richard didn't do this himself. His report is a useful document for reforming mine inspection practices. But, unlike the Marshall inquiry report, it fails to give us any broader directions. Indeed, it falls badly short in describing the politics behind the tragedy.
Judge Richard heaps blame on the inspection bureaucracy for not doing its job and on company managers for their rattish ethics regarding safety.
These are indeed the proximate causes of the 1992 explosion that killed 26 miners. But we're still left asking why inspectors didn't inspect and why a disreputable outfit like Curragh Resources was here to begin with.
The Department of Labour, as described in the report, is the very picture of bureaucracy at its worst. Inspectors were untrained for their task, largely ignorant of the laws they were supposed to uphold, and basically reduced to flunkies of the company they were supposed to inspect.
Most of the bureaucrats involved were afflicted by a general "lassitude" and eager only to shift responsibility to other branches. The Department of Natural Resources, which OK'd the mine without a proper plan, was not much better.
Judge Richard is especially hard on "incompetent" inspector Albert McLean.
But couldn't we also say that McLean and his superiors were doing what was demanded of them -- that the context in which they operated required that they override laws they were sworn to uphold?
After all, did one pipsqueak inspector really have the authority to make trouble for, and even shut down, the pet project of the premier of Nova Scotia, backed by the prime minister of Canada, and designed for political effect in the 1988 election?
I have some sympathy for McLean. He would have had to be a hero to merely do his job. Like most of us, he wasn't. Nor did these departments end up in such a bureaucratically depraved state because the individuals in them weren't doing the job, as the report implies.
The nature of a civil service depends on the political culture in which it operates. Civil servants' motivation, their sense of public service, depends largely on the clarity and purposefulness of their tasks.
Bureaucratic lassitude, on the other hand, is most often a reaction to the politicization of their tasks - interference for partisan purposes, promotions based on politics not merit, the rules being bent for political reasons. There need be no direct order given from the political level. With time and usage, the limits are understood.
As the Marshall inquiry revealed, justice bureaucrats didn't have to be told to go easy on politicians in the Roland Thornhill and Billie Joe MacLean affairs. And so inspectors didn't have to be told to not mess with the Westray mine.
The Marshall Inquiry revealed the profound politically induced dysfunction of the administration of justice. The abuse scandal at the Shelburne boys' school has churned up indications that the department of social affairs might have been that way as well.
How extensive was this state of affairs throughout the Nova Scotia civil service during the Buchanan years? How pervasive is it still despite much downsizing and reshuffling?
The Westray report is strong in particulars and weak at the level of general principles. Judge Richard, for whatever reason, seems to consciously avoid probing the politics. For example Donald Cameron, the key man in bringing the mine to Nova Scotia, is found lacking only in that he "may" have exceeded ministerial prudence in an otherwise laudable attempt to bring in industry.
There's more to it than that. Westray was a political firecracker first and foremost. Hopefully we have learned its larger lessons. We don't learn them from the too-narrowly drawn Westray report.
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First uploaded to the WWW: 1997 December 14