Key’s announcement after Tuesday’s caucus that the health and safety legislation was on hold for another two months revealed the extent of disquiet in National’s ranks.
The row has been rumbling along quietly for months – but the bill’s imminent return to Parliament brought matters to a head.
The debate pits groups like farmers – National’s grassroots base whose record for workplace safety also happens to be among the worst – against the Council of Trade Unions – led by Helen Kelly.
Kelly has her sights set on farmers after getting traction shining the spotlight on the dismal safety record in forestry.
A concerted – and confrontational – campaign by the CTU has forced a dramatic improvement in the accident rate.
The appalling catalogue of health and safety failures in the Pike River mine disaster – where 29 men died – was the catalyst for the legislation – which follows other efforts to beef up the workplace safety regime – including a new body – WorkSafe – which has a mandate to be zealous in its pursuit of health and safety breaches.
But the prosecution of Marlborough sharemilker Maria Carlson and her partner Phil Jones for not wearing helmets and carrying passengers has become the lightning rod for disquiet in the rural sector. Carlson and Jones were fined $40,000.
The health and safety law being considered by Parliament carries much stiffer penalties – up to five years in jail or a fine of up to $600,000 for being reckless in exposing someone ‘owed a duty of care’ to a risk of death or serious injury.
That has translated in the farming community to complaints that they risk prosecution over accidents to anyone allowed on their land.
Small businesses, and organisations staffed by volunteers – also warning the new rules are too onerous and will swallow them up in red tape.
From their positions on the back bench Collins and Williamson are closer to the ear of the back bench MPs – who are wearing the backlash from their constituents and local board members.
For recent MPs – this will be a new new experience. For older ones – they will remember the last time they had to wear the backlash for a Cabinet decision – that was over class sizes.
Cabinet was forced to execute a hasty u-turn.
For any MP whose future rests on the goodwill of voters – any backlash is a cause for panic.
Pike River exposed the extent to which complacency and a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude had contributed to New Zealand’s dismal workplace safety record – twice as bad as Australia’s and six times worse than Britain.
But jitters on National’s back bench over its loss to Winston Peters in Northland have raised the political stakes over any measure that gets them off-side with provincial New Zealand.
Peters has adroitly used Northland to reposition himself as the voice of the regions – backed by some shrewd operators among his crop of new MPs.
The fear of the back benches is that measures like the health and safety bill will open up a new anti-PC or ‘political correctness’ front in the battle for hearts and minds in rural New Zealand.
National knows how devastating the PC label can become in the hands of an opponent.
It won the 2008 election thanks to the PC-backlash against Labour.