Saturday, December 08, 2007

They're Not Laughing Anymore

A recap for our international readers who do not know who Bernie Banton was, or what it was that he did that made him an Australian legend :
Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Wednesday hailed as a hero a man who won billions of dollars in compensation for workers from a multinational company.

He was speaking at a state funeral for Bernie Banton, 61, who died from an asbestos-related disease he contracted while working for building products company James Hardie.

Banton's dogged campaign ultimately led to the establishment of a 4 billion dollar (3.5 billion US) compensation fund for victims of Hardie's asbestos products.

James Hardie's asbestos products were widely used in the Australian housing and construction industry before the dangers of the material were fully appreciated.

As a result, thousands of workers and homeowners contracted diseases such as asbestosis, in which asbestos fibres scar the lining of the lungs and cause slow and painful death.

Banton himself died from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma last week.

"Bernie Banton was a great Australian hero," Rudd told thousands of mourners at Sydney's Acer Arena. "A hero in an age when we had all become so cynical that we didn't believe there could be heroes. He was an Australian hero with an extraordinary heart who lived an extraordinary life."

Rudd, whose Labor Party ousted long-serving conservative prime minister John Howard in elections on November 24, said Banton had asked him to publicly recognise the role unions played in the campaign.

"I salute the roles of these unions in bringing justice to working people," he said.

Amen to that.

The following chunk of transcript is from an interview with Bernie Banton by Andrew Denton in 2006. The disgusting way he was treated in his early days of battle with James Hardie, to get compensation for those who will die terrible deaths from exposure to a product the corporation knew for decades was deadly, drove Bernie on through five years of hell :
BERNIE BANTON : ...Tens of thousands. The figures about people with asbestos-related disease, early in the fight were assessed at, by university figures from Western Australia, that 53,000 more people, by 2020, would be affected with an asbestos-related disease. 13,000 of those people would die of mesothelioma. So we're talking tens of thousands of people being affected. This fund was only ever a rouse. It was never going to have enough money to pay victims into the future. This was what we kept harping on, that it will run out of money. Finally, the New South Wales Government set up a Commission of Inquiry.

ANDREW DENTON: I want to go back to those first couple of years, sitting across the table from Hardies when they were saying there's enough money.

BERNIE BANTON: "We don't owe you anything." That was their line.

ANDREW DENTON: They laughed?

BERNIE BANTON: "We don't owe you any money either morally or legally."

ANDREW DENTON: They literally laughed?

BERNIE BANTON: They literally laughed. Their PR people just laughed at us. Whenever we tried to bring this before them and confront them with it, they laughed at us. They thought we were a mob of ratbags and that we'd go away. Well I think we proved them wrong.

He sure did.

One of the more disturbing elements of the Howard government's scare campaign about the unions before and during the recent election, and all the Liberal Party media supplicants who chimed along, is that without the support of the unions, and their numbers in the years of street protests, James Hardie very likely would never have offered up the money they now claim will help look after the tens of thousands of people they knowingly poisoned.

Bernie Banton is a true Australian hero because he sacrificed the last years of his life for what he believed in, and he did it for his mates, to pay due honour to his dead mates who died like him from exposure to asbestos, to help his fellow Australians, and to make those who had knowingly committed thousands of Australians to a terrible death pay at least something for their appalling and inhuman behaviour.

You don't need to search further than Bernie Banton for a perfect example of what it means to be Australian. He took no shit, and he never stopped fighting.

A Family of 1500 At Bernie Banton's Grand Farewell