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The Night I Met Bernie Banton, The Man Who Beat James Hardie

Monday, 3 December 2012  | Gordon Preece

In November the ABC ran an excellent two night mini-series entitled Devil’s Dust, the story of James Hardie versus Asbestos Victims, based on the book Killer Company by ABC journalist Matt Peacock. For me, it brought back memories of a very short vignette I experienced one night with the real-life Bernie Banton, a flawed man, warm but hot-headed, as the series painted him, but a man of courage and conviction who faithfully hungered for God’s justice.  One night in 2006 I was in NSW Parliament House for an award ceremony. I went to the loo, and found myself next to one of the award winners, the now late Bernie Banton, replete with his omnipresent oxygen connection. Bernie was the public face of the asbestos victims in their campaign against James Hardie. I’d used the James Hardie case in business ethics classes and written a book chapter about Hardie’s culpable blindness to their workers’ health and treatment needs. Rather than being ‘a very good business’ as the founder described them in their laudatory company history, it became a very mixed business indeed.

Despite the unpromising context for a conversation, I couldn’t resist asking Bernie how he was going. His eyes welled up. I asked, “Hardies been giving you a hard time?” He told me things had been really tough. Because of the tensions between his desire to nail Hardies and also keep them alive to pay the victims’ treatment and compensation costs, some of his own were unhappy. He was later very publicly denounced by Tony Abbott during the 2007 election campaign, though Abbott later apologized. Bernie died soon after.  

I mouthed awkward, well-meaning platitudes to Bernie—urinals don’t stimulate profundity—‘good on you’ and ‘hang in there’. I told him I’d written about Hardie and what they’d done to their workers and would like to give him the book when we’d done our business, and then wrote something in it to encourage him. Bernie was one of the unsung heroes, workers, who challenge bad bosses and businesses, or rather managers of mixed businesses with mixed motives. The series showed that ambiguity well—even of Bernie and his fellow workers—the struggles he had to be a good husband (causing his first wife to leave) and a good father (the urgency of the victims cause causing him to reluctantly miss time with his young son).  

Bernie showed that workers are ends in themselves, reminding us that humans are made in God’s image, not mere hands or means to more profits. My father was a good boss who believed that (and shared his profits with his workers), but there are some who aren’t. The Hardie chair John B. Reid, the third generation of the Reid family to chair it, is well-honoured for his charitable donations and funds. But his single-minded concern for Hardie’s profits blinded him to the medical evidence of the effects of asbestos, leading to a kind of triage system of hiring and putting the oldest workers in the riskiest roles, knowing that they would die before the deadly dust got to their lungs and they could sue. The same worked well for the generally short-lived Aboriginals in their asbestos mines. Reid has never answered for his actions or lack of action.  

Later chair Meridith Hellicar called herself ‘a good person’, yet refused to meet worker victims originally, saying that that was the role of social workers. She was later found guilty of misleading the markets concerning wrongful disclosures claiming Hardies moving to the Netherlands to avoid accountability would not affect its ability to meet the needs of asbestos victims. She and several others lost ability to sit as company directors for five years. This was unjustly and ironically reduced on the day of the film’s showing, as rightly denounced by Banton’s still actively crusading wife Karen.  

But many persons and professions beyond Hardies were caught in its wake. The young actuary who the CEO and CFO had bullied out of using their latest actuarial calculations concerning Hardie’s inability to pay the victims’ treatment costs was a Christian I once knew. He’d once incorrectly blamed the early Christian practice of sharing possessions to meet needs for the later Jerusalem famine. Perhaps the early Christian solidarity with the poor and needy could have emboldened him to stand more strongly for the truth and the victims against Hardies aggressive bosses. He was later subject to professional discipline. I feel for him. There but for the grace of God go we. ‘Good’ people, as we like to think of ourselves, can do terrible things by commission (in both senses of the term) or omission. Doctors, lawyers, governments, even trade unions were culpable at times. 

When I spoke about the Hardie case to a group of Christian eminents, a questioner and parliamentarian told me Meredith Hellicar was a friend and what a good person she was. I had not personally questioned Hellicar’s character but merely how the incentive and power structures of all sorts of  institutions, not just corporations but churches (witness the current abuse crisis) can blind and trip up the most upstanding of corporate and other citizens of secular and sacred kingdoms.  

Another good man I knew was generous to Christian causes, but he was associated with another asbestos-related company (whom Midnight Oil decried in ‘Blue Sky Mining’ about the Western Australian asbestos town of Wittenoom). They got out of asbestos well before Hardies. But his association led him to 'order’ me not to talk of asbestos any more. I refused then and refuse now, especially after the recent death of one of my parishioners due to exposure to asbestos while cleaning out that company’s tanks as an apprentice boiler maker 50 years ago. He even joked with me about the $100,000 compensation he was due but never got to see. Sadly I was overseas and couldn’t take his funeral. For him and other victims like a friend’s wife whose rattling cough in the night haunted my asthmatic wife, and in memory of my momentary meeting with Bernie Banton, I refuse to be silenced and continue to use James Hardie in business ethics courses: not to demonize them, but to demonstrate how often sometime good people and good companies can go wrong and be blind to the God-breathed fellow-humanity of their workers and their own mixed motives. 

A recent interview with oral historian Studs Terkel reminds us not to forget the forgotten rough diamonds of history, of the factory, of the business. He quotes a man at a public meeting of tailors in October 1850: 

It is easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug seacoal fire, and with our hearts well-warmed with a fine old port. It is easy enough for those that can enjoy these things daily to pay their poor’s rates, rent their pew and love their neighbours as themselves; but place the self-same ‘highly respectable’ people on a raft without sup or bite on the high seas, and they would toss up who would eat their fellows. Morality on 5000 pounds a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing to morality on slop-wages in Bethnal Green. 

Terkel asks: ‘Who are they, these et ceteras of history, hardly worth a footnote? Who are they of whom the bards have seldom sung? [The playwright] Berthold Brecht in a series of questions put it this way: who built the Seven Gates of Thebes? When the Chinese wall was built, where did the masons go? When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? When the Armada sank, King Philip [of Spain] wept. Were there no other tears?’ or as Terkel says, ‘laughs of triumph’. He’s dedicated himself to making these anonymous worker heroes heard, and we should listen.  

But when history’s heroes and villains are arraigned before the final judgment, and most of us find a measure of both in ourselves, a final word of reconciling hope is apt. At his state funeral, 2,000 mourners were told Bernie called family members to a bedside communion where, according to his brother and pastor, Brian, ‘he confessed through tears his forgiveness for the perpetrators of his [and his brother’s also fatal] illness’. The theme of forgiveness was taken further by his 11-year-old granddaughter Kayla who, like Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream, that the sons and daughters of James Hardie bosses and workers would gather one day on the steps of parliament house and sit down together at ‘a table of brotherhood’.

It is reminiscent of Isaiah 65 with a bit of loose paraphrasing:

In the new heavens and new earth people will no longer die of asbestos poisoning, but will live long and full-breathed lives, full of vigor. They will share a drink at that table from the best of brews their hands have produced. There their work will not be in vain, but the hard toil and risks to life and limb that made the profits of Hardie and others, will be properly rewarded, their work will be again good in itself, as it was meant to be in the beginning, and Bernie Banton will have his reward, his thirst for justice sated.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity and Society. His and Chris White’s chapters on James Hardie are available in his book edited with Doug Hynd and Jim Barr, Theology in a Third Voice, available from Ethos for $10 incl. p&p. Call (03) 9890 0633 or email enquiries@ethos.org.au


Margaret Healy
May 24, 2018, 9:40PM
Hello, Gordon. I read your article with interest.

My husband died of mesothelioma three months short of our 40th wedding anniversary. He was 70, and given his family’s history of longevity and his great standard of health before he contracted what I now call the James Hardie disease, there was every reason to expect him to live in good health into his 90s.

We successfully sued Hardies, receiving more than double the amount they grudgingly tabled at the commencement of the case.

I am writing to you to make the point that though Bernie very successfully sued Hardies, as did my husband and I to a much lesser degree, Bernie didn’t beat James Hardie, and nor did my husband. He and Bernie are dead. My heart is broken as is the beautiful life my husband and I worked so hard to achieve. That does not sound like winning. It isn’t. Hardies won. John Boyd Reid wins everyday he is alive and lives in splendour in Pyrmont overlooking the most beautiful harbour in the World. Oh my God, may he rot in Hell.

I take the point you make in your title, Gordon, and I hope you can accept mine.

Sincerely yours,

Margaret Healy
Gordon R Preece
June 5, 2018, 4:18PM
Dear Margaret,

Thanks so much for your very poignant and honest email. Yes, the last bit of the headline was a bit trite - I was just trying to identify Bernie for people who'd forgotten him. But 'fought' would've been better than 'beat' as you rightly point out. Sorry if that rubbed any salt in your wounds.

Hardie's, who we've used as a case study since 2004, are sadly typical of companies like Commonwealth Bank now. Though the rich do often prosper in this life, as the psalmist wrote, he's encouraged that in the end they will face God's judgement in the next.

God's grace and peace be with you

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