At a state funeral held last week, more than 1500 Australians and asbestos activists from a number of other countries joined together to pay homage to Bernie Banton, the Australian who was largely responsible for bringing the plight of asbestos workers in that country to the public eye.
According to an article in the Australian, the event “reunited the politicians, union leaders, lawyers and victims who had fought the long and painful campaign to force Hardie to compensate victims of the asbestos products the building materials company manufactured until 1987.”
Banton’s funeral was held at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium because Premier Morris Iemma said, “they just don’t make churches big enough to farewell men like Bernie Banton”.
Greg Combet, the former trade union leader and now federal Labor MP, who helped Banton negotiate a $4 billion agreement with Hardie, said that without his friend and comrade the company “might not have buckled.”
“Bernie had a rare capacity, a capacity to connect with people and to inspire in them the same passion for justice that he himself felt,” Mr. Combet told the congregation.
Bernie’s brother, the Reverend Bruce Banton, conducted the service. The pastor was one of four brothers who worked at Hardie and the only one who is yet to be touched by the legacy of asbestos exposure. He helped bury another brother in 2001. Yet another brother has asbestosis and attended the funeral in a wheelchair.
The Prime Minister of Australia proclaimed Banton to be “a hero in an age when we had all become so cynical that we didn’t believe there could be heroes.”
The head of Hardie in Australia, Peter Baker, attended the funeral. But former Hardie chairwoman, Meredith Hellicar, did not. Banton had wanted Hellicar jailed due to her role in the Hardie compensation scandal. Family members said she was tending to a sick parent in France and was unavailable.
The newspaper article notes that “union members lined the way from the Acer Arena to the hearse as an ‘honor guard’. They clapped and shouted ‘good on you, Bernie’ as his coffin was loaded into the hearse and driven away for a private burial beside the graves of his parents.”