Bernard (Bernie) Douglas Banton AM (1946 – 27 November 2007) was an Australian crusader for people suffering from asbestos-related diseases and social justice. He was the widely recognised face of the legal and political campaign to achieve compensation for the many sufferers of asbestos related diseases.
In 1968, Bernie got a job, through his brother Ted, at James Hardie’s Camellia facility in Sydney’s western suburbs. He worked there for six years and was the union rep. At this site, Bernie was involved with the production of various asbestos products. This group was known as the ‘Snowmen’, because they were covered from head to toe with the white asbestos dust. At the time there was talk about the danger of asbestos, but never were they told that it could kill you. In 1974 there were 137 workers at the Camellia facility and by 2006 only ten were alive. Bernie’s brother Ted died of mesothelioma in 2001. Asbestos was continued to be used until 1987. Bernie suffered from two different asbestos-related diseases. He had asbestosis which required him to carry an oxygen tank wherever he went and he developed mesothelioma at a later stage.
Bernie’s lobbying of New South Wales Government in 2000 resulted in the setting up of the Jackson Commission. The Commission eventually established that Hardies had grossly underfunded the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation established to compensate its victims of asbestos. It took another two years of negotiations to get Hardies to agree to pay 35% of their profits for the next 40 years, making it the biggest settlement in Australian history. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours on 13 June 2005, Bernie was made a Member of the Order of Australia, “for service to the community, particularly as an advocate for people affected by asbestos-related illnesses”. In his victory speech on 24 November 2007, the Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd paid special tribute to Bernie, saying that Bernie represented the “great Australian trade union movement” and was a beacon of decency in his fight for compensation.
Bernie Banton died on 27 November 2007, just three days after the election. The Banton family accepted the NSW Government’s offer of a state funeral, which was held on the 5th December 2007. Both the Australian and the NSW State flags were lowered to half-mast that day on all NSW Government buildings. In his eulogy of Bernie, Prime Minister, the Hon. Kevin Rudd said: “An ordinary bloke with an extraordinary heart who led an extraordinary life.”