Friday, December 28, 2007

State funeral for Bernie Banton

Bernie Banton, the public face of the campaign against asbestos company James Hardie, has died, but his efforts have been hailed as a decades-long legacy for asbestos disease sufferers.

Mr Banton, 61, died at his Sydney home about 1am (AEDT) on Tuesday with his family by his side.

His wife Karen, brother Bruce, sister Grace and five children have accepted the NSW government's offer of a state funeral.

Mr Banton was diagnosed in August with peritoneal mesothelioma, an abdominal cancer caused by his exposure to asbestos when he worked for a subsidiary of James Hardie from 1968 to 1974.

He had already been suffering for years from asbestosis, a lung disease also caused by exposure to asbestos.

Despite this, he led the campaign to force James Hardie to establish a fund that would provide adequate compensation for all its employees suffering from diseases caused by their exposure to asbestos at its factories.

He was, NSW Premier Morris Iemma said, "a truly great Australian, a man who fought for others at a time when he should have been worrying about his own health".

"In November 2006, on the day we signed the final agreement to secure compensation for Hardie victims (workers in James Hardie factories who contracted diseases caused by asbestos), Bernie knew he'd achieved something special.

"That deal was worth $1.5 billion over the next 40 years for those who suffered and continue to suffer this dreadful disease.

"It would not have been possible without Bernie Banton."

Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd said he was "a fighter" who was "a symbol, a living symbol of what is right and decent and proper in the workplace relations of this country".

"Australia is going to be poorer for Bernie's passing - our whole nation will be poorer for Bernie's passing," Mr Rudd said.

Mr Banton was diagnosed in 1999 with asbestosis and ARPD (asbestos-related pleural disease), which reduced his lung capacity to 40 per cent.

He began to rely on an oxygen bottle, but he refused to let it slow him down, taking it with him everywhere he went as he campaigned for fair compensation from James Hardie for all its affected workers.

Estimates of future claims continued to rise, and the company was eventually forced in December 2004 to sign Australia's largest ever compensation settlement, worth up to $4.5 billion over 40 years.

In a statement, James Hardie expressed its condolences to the family of Mr Banton, acknowledging his work in raising public awareness of asbestos-related disease.

"The company acknowledges the significant contribution Mr Banton made to raising the awareness of asbestos-related diseases in Australia, and his role in the eventual implementation of the final funding agreement to compensate Australians with asbestos-related personal injury claims," the company said.

NSW parliament rose for a moment's silence and both sides of politics delivered statements praising him.

"Bernie courageously pursued justice for sufferers of asbestos-related diseases and their families, we all owe him a debt of gratitude," NSW Industrial Relations Minister John Della Bosca said.

Former ACTU secretary Greg Combet said Mr Banton had been a fighter for other people and a fighter for justice.

"I hope that people properly appreciate the importance of the settlement that was reached with James Hardie a few years back, because it was a very hard fight and Bernie contributed a lot," Mr Combet said.

"That's how he should be recognised."

Last Thursday, Mr Banton won a confidential payout as compensation for his terminal mesothelioma, including exemplary damages for what his lawyers called James Hardie's "contumelious" disregard for the health of its workers when they knew of the dangers of asbestos.

In 2000, he had been awarded $800,000 compensation for asbestosis.

And last month he succeeded in getting the palliative drug Alimta subsidised by the federal government for mesothelioma sufferers.

His brother Bruce said Mr Banton's funeral would probably be held on Saturday but details were still being discussed.

"One thing we will be asking is for instead of flowers at the service is donations for asbestos research and treatments," he said.

In a further tribute, the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute at Sydney's Concord hospital will also be named the Bernie Banton Centre.

In Melbourne, he was honoured at a commemorative service, part of Asbestos Awareness Week, to remember people who have died from asbestos-related diseases.


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