Bernard Douglas Banton AM was born in Parramatta NSW in 1946 and passed away from asbestosis and asbestos-related pleural disease (ARPD) in Novmeber 2007. He was sixty - one at the time of his death.
Bernie Banton was an influential and prominent Australian social justice campaigner. He was the widely recognised face of the legal and political campaign to achieve compensation for the thousands of sufferers of asbestos-related conditions. At the time many of these individuals had contracted asbestos related diseases after working for the company James Hardie or being exposed to James Hardie Industries' products. Mr Banton also suffered from asbestos pleural disease.
Asbestosis is “chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Prolonged exposure to these fibers can cause lung tissue scarring and shortness of breath. Asbestosis symptoms can range from mild to severe, and usually don't appear until many years after continued exposure. Asbestos is a natural mineral product that's resistant to heat and corrosion. It was used extensively in the past in products such as insulation, cement and some floor tiles.” And in 2017, “Mesothelioma accounts for over 700 deaths per year in Australia – The true burden of asbestos related disease is over 4,000 Australian lives every year.”
Banton was first diagnosed with asbestosis in January 1999 after having worked at James Hardie Industries, decades earlier, making asbestos lagging. During this time Banton and his colleagues were called the ‘Snowmen”. This was between 1968 to 1974 at the James Hardie planet in Camellia.
“Because we were covered from head to toe with the white dust of asbestos in the manufacture of kaylite. The factory was just covered in dust. That's why, when we used to walk out, if we didn't use the air hose to blow the dust off, all you could see was our eyes.”
From 2000 Mr Banton was unable to work as part of the funeral industry he was employed in. This was due to the physical nature of the work. These conditions required that he use oxygen at all times. As stated by Banton in an interview with Andrew Denton;
“The best way I could explain asbestosis is like a wheat silo. Your lungs are encased in a concrete-like substance, so when you try to take that deep breath, you are sort of hesitating halfway there because, you know, if you try and take those big deep breaths, you're sort of in limbo. So what it means is, I don't have a real lot of lung capacity.”
And in relation to his life expectancy:
“Well it's not good. Simple as that. It's not good. But I've said right from the beginning of this fight that until they put me in a box, I'll be out there fighting. My claim was settled back in 2000 and so this fight, from there on, has not been about me and my compensation. It's about everybody else.”
Mr Banton received an $800,00 settlement in 2000 from James Hardie for the role in his diagnosis of asbestosis. But after watching his own brother pass away from mesothelioma as well as seeing the deaths, suffering and hardship of many of his own colleagues, family and thousands of others, he continued to fight for their compensation. To put this in to perspective, in 2006 only nine of the one-hundred and thirty seven people Banton worked with were still living.
In 2004, after the campaigning of Bernie Banton along with various unions James Hardie agreed to the largest settlement in Australian history. The company had to commit 35% of its profits for the next 40 years to the victims of asbestos poisoning.
On the 17 August 2007, Bernie was also diagnosed with terminal peritoneal mesothelioma asbestos cancer.
That same year, Banton brought an action against Amaca Pty Ltd, formerly James Hardie, before the Dust Diseases Tribunal of New South Wales. This was for compensation related to his cancer diagnosis. Mr Banton was one of the first individuals to take advantage of a provision that allows for further compensation if mesothelioma asbestos cancer is diagnosed. Bernie gave much of his testimonial for this case while in hospital, in the last days of his life.
During his final years Bernie also advocated for the Australian Federal Government to have the drug Alimta, listed on the PBS for treating mesothelioma. The final approval was made only three weeks before his death. The drug was listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) in 2008.
For his tireless commitment to achieving compensation for asbestos victims, despite severe health issues, Bernie Banton received many accolades, and garnered great respect. In 2005 Mr Banton received an Order of Australia for his “service to the community, particularly as an advocate for people affected by asbestos-related illnesses". When former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd won the federal election in 2007, just 3 days before Banton”s death he spoke of the campaigner as a “beacon of decency” who represented the “great Australian trade union movement"
The Banton family accepted the State Funeral offered by the New South Wales government. It was held on the 5 December 2007. The Australian and NSW state flags were raised at half-mast at in all NSW government department buildings.
In 2009,the asbestos diseases research institute at Sydney's Concord Repatriation General Hospital was named the Bernie Banton Centre. The facility is the world's first standalone research facility dedicated to the treatment and prevention of asbestos-related diseases. The Bernie Banton Bridge, which carries Marsden Street over the Parramatta River in Parramatta also carries his name.
The Bernie Banton Foundation existed from 2009 until 2020. It was an Australian not-for-profit organisation devoted to asbestos awareness and education, support and patient advocacy. The Foundation's aim was to be: ‘The voice of reason for Australian asbestos related disease sufferers, their carers and loved ones, allied health and care providers, and to the wider community.’
Bernie Banton passed away at this home 103 days after receiving his diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma, an incurable asbestos-related cancer on the 27November 2007.
His legacy is a powerful and enduring one.
"Without Bernie, there may have been people with asbestos diseases today who would not have access to compensation,". "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 and he moved the Australian community." –Greg Combet former Secretary of the ACTU.
"Bernie Banton was a tireless campaigner for those suffering asbestos diseases. His example will live on and his legacy will be the great success he had in holding James Hardie and its directors accountable for their actions." - VTHC Secretary Brian Boyd.
"If there is such a thing as a true Australian spirit, I think Bernie embodied it and that's why so many of us identified with him," "No one articulated the case as to what Hardie's had done and the outrage people felt better or more succinctly than Bernie Banton did. And it wasn't a role anyone chose for him." – Peter Gordon
Emma Stockburn, Research Facilitator, Parramatta Heritage Centre, City of Parramatta, 2021
Bernie Banton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_Banton
Bernie Banton Dead: https://www.smh.com.au/national/bernie-banton-dead-20071127-gdroxv.html
Obituary: Banton the public face of asbestos fight https://www.abc.net.au/news/2007-11-27/obituary-banton-the-public-face-of-asbestos-fight/969394
Bernie and Karen Baton on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton https://web.archive.org/web/20071014221645/http://abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s1679288.htm
Bernie Banton: the public face: https://www.berniebanton.com.au/bernie-banton-one-in-a-million/bernie-banton-am-the-public-face/
Bernie Banton Bridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_Banton_Bridge
James Hardie Industries: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hardie_Industries
Dying asbestos campaigner fights on: https://www.smh.com.au/national/dying-asbestos-campaigner-fights-on-from-hospital-bed-20071122-gdrnp5.html
Rudd looks to the future: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2007-11-24/victorious-rudd-looks-to-the-future/967466
Asbestos related disease facts: https://gards.org/asbestos-related-disease-facts-and-figures-australia-2018/