House debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2008


Mr Leonard Joseph Keogh; Dr Kenneth Lionel Fry; Ms Helen Mayer; Hon. Robert Lindsay Collins AO; Mr Matt Price; Mr Bernard Douglas (Bernie) Banton AM; Hon. Sir Charles Walter Michael Court AK KCMG OBE; Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG ONZ KBE

Debate resumed from 21 February, on the Speaker’s announcement informing the House of the deaths of:

Mr Leonard Joseph Keogh, on 10 October 2007, a Member of this House for the Division of Bowman from 1969 to 1975 and 1983 to 1987;

Dr Kenneth Lionel Fry, on 10 October 2007, a Member of this House for the Division of Fraser from 1974 to 1984;

Ms Helen Mayer, on 7 February 2008, a Member of this House for the Division of Chisholm from 1983 to 1987;

The Honourable Robert Lindsay Collins AO, on 21 September 2007, a former Senator for the Northern Territory from 1987 to 1998 and Minister;

Mr Matt Price, journalist, on 25 November 2007;

Mr Bernard Douglas (Bernie) Banton AM, victim of asbestosis, mesothelioma and asbestos-related pleural disease, on 27 November 2007;

The Honourable Sir Charles Walter Michael Court AK KCMG OBE, a former Premier of Western Australia, on 22 December 2007, and

Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG ONZ KBE, on 11 January 2008, New Zealand mountaineer and first known climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

5:07 pm

Photo of John MurphyJohn Murphy (Lowe, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to speak about the great Bernie Banton. Bernie Banton was one of the most famous anti-asbestos campaigners in Australia. He was the face, heart and soul of the hard-fought struggle to bring corporate giant James Hardie to account. He was the face, the heart and the soul of the biggest battle for compensation in Australia’s workplace history. We live in an age where suggestions of heroism are treated with cynicism, an age where the overworked expression ‘Australian hero’ can often be trite. Not so on this occasion. Bernie Banton was a hero—a hero for ordinary Australian workers and a hero for all Australian families. He, like very few before him, was able to prod the Australian conscience and to touch our souls. At a time when we were drifting towards a more insular life, looking after those immediate to us, Bernie reminded us of the importance of togetherness—the Anzac spirit. He reminded us of the importance of the great Australian traditions of the fair go for all, of looking out for each other, of sticking up for your mates and of punching well above your weight. In so doing, Bernie Banton was an ordinary Australian hero doing extraordinary things.

We know that one of Bernie’s greatest achievements was negotiating the creation of a $4 billion compensation fund which offers financial security to thousands of workers who have contracted asbestos diseases whilst working with products made by James Hardie. The fund will also provide financial security for the families of those workers. The sum is the largest voluntary payment in Australian corporate history. My friend and colleague the member for Charlton, who worked very closely to make this deal a reality, has made it very clear that it would not have been possible without Bernie’s influence. Bernie did not just prick the Australian conscience; he lanced the conscience of one of Australia’s biggest and oldest companies. Given James Hardie’s past, making it meet its responsibilities for having put thousands of lives at risk was an insurmountable task for many but not for Bernie Banton.

Gideon Haigh, the author of Asbestos House: the Secret History of James Hardie Industries, notes that a memo from Hardie’s Camellia plant manager warned of the dangers of asbestos. The memo from October 1972 stated:

Even assuming that all vented systems were perfect, the fact remains that dust clings to every cut surface, is generated every time a block is moved ...

                   …                   …                   …

I see no real solution to these problems except by use of an asbestos substitute.

One former safety officer at James Hardie, who later went on to become an executive, has described the negligence at the Camellia plant, where workers were exposed to plumes of asbestos dust so thick that they could barely see what was in front of them. In 1999 the New South Wales Supreme Court ruled that by 1938 Hardie:

... had actual knowledge of the dangers to health posed by visible clouds of asbestos dust.

Yet, despite the countless warnings, James Hardie recklessly and irresponsibly continued to use asbestos, inflicting disease and ultimately death on the hundreds of workers who gave the company their utmost loyalty—including Bernie. Bernie’s success at halting James Hardie in its tracks when it tried to run away from its obligations is one of Australia’s greatest David and Goliath stories. Bernie’s heroic battle was symbolic of what is right, what is decent and what is proper in all Australian workplaces. He single-handedly delivered the message that employees could not be written off as mere commodities. Human beings deserve to be treated with care and respect at all times. Bernie understood that.

Through this there seems to be an obvious message. It was one that only Bernie could deliver to the executives at James Hardie. It was a message upon which justice for hundreds of workers and thousands of family members hinged. Despite being hampered by asbestosis and ultimately mesothelioma, Bernie never wallowed in self-pity. He was unrelenting in his pursuit of justice, not for himself but for those who would not otherwise have had any. Gideon Haigh traces Bernie’s activism to the experience of one of his mates. Bernie was watching a friend undergo antagonising, patronising questioning and obfuscation from James Hardie’s lawyers. Bernie recalled:

They made him look like such a dope.

The judge could see he was telling the truth, but it was just these smartarse lawyers, especially the bloke from Hardies.

I would have thumped him in the gob.

Bernie’s asbestos campaign began and ended with concern for others, despite his own deteriorating health. Bernie’s oncologist from Concord hospital, Stephen Clarke, recalls urging his patient to put his own health needs first—advice that largely went unheeded. Bernie should have been worrying about his own health but he was more concerned about his mates, about the injustice and about the workers around Australia. He was concerned about those whose names he did not know and whose families would experience the same challenges as his wife, Karen. Bernie’s altruism, dignity and determination earned him admiration from many quarters, but he would have been beaming with pride at the accolades given to him by the ordinary Australians for whom he fought so hard. The wife of one victim who met Bernie at a Canberra fundraiser said:

He was inspirational. He was already sick with asbestosis and I had lost my husband but I was really appreciative of what he was doing for others.

Another widow said:

He inspired a lot of people to really fight hard for important things.

Bernie battled for victims and their family members to the very end. Knowing that he might only have weeks to live, Bernie was still fighting for others from his hospital bed. I had the immense honour of meeting Bernie at his hospital bed in Concord hospital. He held my hand tightly for 25 minutes, extolling the virtues of the drug Alimta. Bernie was eligible to receive Alimta free of charge but hundreds and potentially thousands of patients remained ineligible, paying tens of thousands of dollars to access a treatment that relieves pain and prolongs life. Vowing to take up his fight, I collected thousands of signatures from my constituents in my electorate of Lowe. With the assistance of others, Bernie was already well on his way to collecting 17,000 other signatures. As we know, Alimta was finally listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Bernie Banton was a courageous man. He was a thoroughly decent man. He was a selfless man. This is perhaps no more evident than in a moving tribute that he had written for his wonderful wife, Karen, and read by his brother Bruce at his funeral. He said:

You seem so fragile at times.

But you are so strong when it’s needed. I’m sorry to leave you. But I’m so happy and blessed to have spent the past 16 years of my life married to you.

Go on with your life. See you in heaven. I love you. My soul mate. My wife. And always my darling.

Bernie, we will all go on with our lives. We will live them mindful of the legacy of justice and comfort you have left behind for asbestosis and mesothelioma sufferers. We may no longer be able to hear the audible rasp of your respirator, but your words and deeds will resonate with us for years to come. There is much to do, many fights to win. We will do our best to honour you by continuing your battle to raise awareness of asbestos related diseases and their debilitating nature. That is why I am so proud that the Bernie Banton Centre, located at Concord hospital in my electorate of Lowe, will work earnestly to provide early diagnosis and treatment for victims of asbestos related diseases.

The work of the Bernie Banton Centre will take on a heightened sense of importance in the years ahead as ordinary Australians expose themselves to asbestos fibres, not at work but at home. The number of asbestos related cases in Australia is not expected to peak for another decade. In the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of Australians have unknowingly been exposed to asbestos products in their homes and at work, including mums washing clothes covered in asbestos fibres, dads cutting fibro sheets in the backyard and any children standing nearby. None knew of the dangers confronting them. Now there is a wave of cases of asbestos related diseases appearing among a new generation of home renovators. In my electorate of Lowe, where old Federation and Californian bungalow homes abound, there are many homes that have some asbestos in them. Bernie may no long be with us, but his battles clearly remain.

5:17 pm

Photo of Gary GrayGary Gray (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank those opposite for their indulgence. I rise to speak, on this condolence motion, of a good friend and mentor of mine, former Senator Bob Collins. Bob was born in Newcastle and migrated to the Northern Territory, where he worked in agriculture in Maningrida for many years before joining the Labor Party. Bob, when he was in this place as a senator, was no taller than me but was at least twice my weight. Many people would have been surprised to have seen the footage shown in a Four Corners program that I have seen of Bob riding a horse and looking every bit like Little Joe from the TV show Bonanza.

In the late 1970s, to be a member of the Labor Party in the Northern Territory was a pretty tough ask. At successive elections in the middle 1970s, the Labor Party was effectively wiped out so that at one stage, out of a 19-person assembly, 18 of them belonged to the Country Liberal Party and only one was an Independent. There were no Labor members at all in the parliament when Bob was first preselected to stand for the Labor Party in that parliament.

Dawn Lawrie, who was the Independent member at that time, became of course a lifelong friend of Bob’s and eventually a member of the Labor Party herself. Bob was duly elected to the assembly and became leader of the Labor Party for the 1983 Northern Territory election. Things did not get easier for the Labor Party in 1983. In that election we polled less than 34 per cent of the preferred vote and suffered terrible losses as the newly elected Country Liberal Party government in a parliament of 25 seats cornered for itself over 17 of those seats.

Importantly, Bob was a champion of Aboriginal causes—most importantly, the cause of getting Aboriginal people into parliament. He was fearless in championing the cause of uranium mining and never looked back when it came to the interests of Indigenous people. Bob supported the preselection of Wesley Lanuphuy, the first Indigenous member of the parliamentary Labor Party in the Northern Territory, and then Maurice Rioli from the Tiwi Islands. By the late 1980s, Bob’s attention had turned to the Senate. He stood for Senate preselection and walked that in in 1987. He stood for election at the 11 July 1987 election that also saw Warren Snowdon elected to this place. Warren and Bob had always had a fascinating relationship—Warren from one wing of the Labor Party and Bob from the other. It was with some amusement that, in early 1986, in a ballot for the national executive, the ballot was eventually won by Bob—the party vote having been tied on the conference floor, and the deciding vote being drawn from Warren Snowdon’s hat.

Bob had been responsible for developing a core of staff that were extremely loyal, diligent and hardworking: the late Barbara James was central to that core, as were Rolf Gerritsen, now a professor and working in Alice Springs; Jack Lake, who now works for the current Prime Minister; and Brian Johnston, whom I mentioned earlier, who is battling with his own demons at the moment—he has cancer. By 1990, Bob was a minister in the federal parliament: Minister for Primary Industries and Energy and Minister for Transport and Communications. As his ministerial career developed, Bob maintained a massive interest in domestic Northern Territory politics, so by the defeat of the Keating government in 1996 his interest had encouraged the career of, firstly, Brian Ede, who became leader of the party in the early 1990s and then Clare Martin, who became the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. When Bob left this place, his work developing the Labor Party in the Northern Territory was continued by Clare Martin. I remember Bob for his great humour and his incredible capacity to process information, to speak in a lucid manner and to speak in a concise and precise frame. He is survived by his wife, Rosemary, and his sons and daughters. Bob was a wonderful man—a person who gave me my start in politics. I thank him for that, and I will not forget him.

5:22 pm

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on this condolence motion to express my condolences on the death of a very great Western Australian, Sir Charles Court. Sir Charles was not born in Western Australia, but he did arrive there at the age of three months. He is one of the most significant historical figures in the history of my state. He is certainly a historical figure in the history of our country. In many ways, the good fortune that Western Australians and Australians are enjoying at the present time—through what is called the mining boom—is as a result of the efforts of Sir Charles when he was deputy premier, a minister and ultimately premier of Western Australia.

Sir Charles entered parliament in 1953. Prior to that, he had been an accountant and a soldier. He had founded the accountancy practice Hendry, Rae & Court that still exists in Perth. During the war he served in the AIF. He rose very quickly from a private to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was married twice: firstly to Rita, who died in the early 1990s, and secondly to Judith, who survives him. He also had five sons: Victor, Barry, Ken, Geoffrey and Richard, many of whom have been very prominent Western Australians also—in particular, of course, his son Richard, who went on to succeed him as the member for Nedlands and also went on to be Premier of Western Australia.

When Sir Charles entered the Western Australian parliament, Western Australia was a very different place from what it is today. It was very much a laggard state. There was not a lot going on in the way of the Western Australian economy. Generally, what happened was that if you grew up in Western Australia you would leave to find opportunity in the eastern states or elsewhere. That was the reality of Western Australia in the 1950s. Sir Charles was determined to change that. When you think back, it is astonishing that his first big battle to do that was to try to convince the federal government to allow Western Australia to export iron ore. When you think of that, it seems quite extraordinary—that the state government would be required to battle the federal government to export iron ore. There was a lot of opposition to that going on at the time, believe it or not. In winning the battle, and in the efforts that he made to develop the resources industry in the north-west of Western Australia, he really sowed the seeds of the state’s, and of course the nation’s, current prosperity.

Sir Charles rose very quickly to be Deputy Leader of the Opposition in 1957. Then, when the Liberal Party won government in 1959, he became the Minister for Industrial Development and the North-West, Minister for Transport and Minister for Railways. He had an extraordinary presence. In that portfolio he travelled the world. He went to boardrooms in Tokyo, he went to boardrooms in New York and he went to boardrooms in London, and he convinced them about the viability of the Western Australian resources industry. He was also an extraordinarily loyal deputy to the then Premier, Sir David Brand, who was of course a very significant Western Australian also. But it was really in that time when he was Minister for Industrial Development and the North-West that he became the architect of the current resources boom. In doing so, he took Western Australia from being a laggard state, a mendicant state, to being the powerhouse that it is today. All Australians owe him a great debt for doing that.

He served very loyally as the deputy to Sir David Brand, and ultimately he succeeded him as Leader of the Opposition after the Brand government lost to John Tonkin in 1971. He took the Liberal Party back into office after just three years in opposition, which is a feat that has not occurred very often in Australian politics. Indeed, I understand that it was only the second time that it has happened. In 1974, when he won that election against John Tonkin—who I might add is also a much loved Western Australian former Premier—he became Premier and took on the portfolios of Treasurer, Minister Coordinating Economic and Regional Development, and Minister for Federal Affairs.

During that time, in Canberra there was the Fraser government. There was not a lot of love lost between Sir Charles and the Canberra authorities, regardless of which political party they represented. Sir Charles really did not have that much time for party loyalty. His loyalty was to the state of Western Australia. He was something of a fearsome advocate. Indeed, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, came to attend Sir Charles’s 95th birthday, a big celebration that we had in 2006 in Perth, and he relayed some of the stories about Sir Charles being an extraordinarily formidable man to deal with. Robert Menzies noted that Sir Charles—and Robert Menzies was a relatively formidable man himself—refused to ever take no for an answer. Menzies had the greatest of respect for him. I note that former Prime Minister Paul Keating was also a great admirer of Sir Charles.

Sir Charles, above all else, was fiercely Western Australian. He really did not approve of terribly much that went on in Canberra, and he held the Canberra authorities in contempt in many ways. He was an extraordinarily strong public presence. He had a tremendous sense of humour, which was not often noted about Sir Charles. He was also a very formidable leader. I suspect that, for some of his ministerial colleagues when he was Premier, he was quite an exasperating leader. He used to be famous for calling them at 4.30 in the morning. He would get up, read the papers, call his ministers extraordinarily early and expect them to be on top of their brief. He always had extraordinarily high standards of probity. He refused to let the treasurer of the Western Australian Liberal Party tell him anything about who was financing the Liberal Party of Western Australia, because he did not want to know.

As well as being a tremendous leader, a very formidable presence and someone who, it was said, did not suffer fools gladly, he was not an arrogant man. I think that is very important. He was a leader but not an arrogant man. He remained a very humble man. Throughout his period as Premier—and I think this is quite extraordinary—he kept his phone number in the Western Australian phone book. He used to school his boys on answering the phone if someone were to call up to complain about specific aspects of the governing of Western Australia. He expected his sons to treat anyone who called the house with respect and he gave them instructions about how they might pass the message through to him. That is the sort of man he was. Even when he was Premier, he remained humble.

I had the privilege of attending the celebrations for his 95th birthday. Sadly, that was only about 16 months before he passed away. He gave a powerful speech, as he always did, without notes. He spoke for about 40 minutes. Sir Charles opened that speech by chastising the audience for not having faith that he was going to reach his 100th birthday and for celebrating his 95th. But of course that proved prescient in the end as Sir Charles passed away towards the end of last year.

It is very important that the House pay its respects and condolences to one of the greatest Australians to have served in a political arena, former Western Australian Premier Sir Charles Court. He will be sadly missed. He often advised Western Australian Liberals of all ages about appropriate courses of action. We will certainly miss him, as will all Western Australians. Australia has lost a very significant political figure.

5:31 pm

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the condolence motion to take note of and commemorate the life of great service that Bernie Banton gave. I think courage is sometimes an overused word, but it was a quality that Bernie displayed in very great measure. He endured, as did many other Australians, the ravages of diseases related to exposure to asbestos dust, which, regrettably and sadly, eventually took him away. He endured the shortness of breath, the onset of mesothelioma and even the loss of his own brother, who died of related diseases in 2001.

Not only did he endure with courage and with fortitude the ravages of those diseases but he also became well known as somebody who stood up for the victims of asbestos diseases. He eventually became a leading figure in the campaign to ensure there was fair and just compensation for all those affected by James Hardie’s activities in New South Wales, including the factory in the western suburbs of Sydney that Bernie and others had worked in. This campaign became known nationally and internationally. Bernie was an indefatigable fighter in this campaign. I was pleased and privileged to have worked for a number of years with him and with other members of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia. I served for a number of years as patron of the foundation and at all times I witnessed Bernie’s extraordinary bravery, courage and fortitude.

The history of exposure to asbestos is relatively well known, but what needs to be remarked upon as we reflect on Bernie’s service and his life is that there are still many Australians who suffer from the ravages of asbestos related diseases. The miners in the asbestos mines around Wittenoom in Western Australia and the people who were exposed to building products are quite often suddenly finding they are carrying a legacy of serious health problems that will inevitably result in their premature deaths. It is a tragic epoch in Australian history that it took so long for the recognition of this terrible disease to become clear and even longer for compensation to be paid to those who suffered.

In 2000 Bernie Banton successfully settled his claim for $800,000 with James Hardie. I think any other person would have probably stopped there and tried to build some kind of life for themselves, given the ravages of the disease were still in evidence. However, Bernie then went out and, as he had previously, started fighting day in and day out for the rights of the former employees of James Hardie. His catchcry was a simple one: ‘We are going to fight until we get justice for victims and their families.’ He became a well-recognised figure on television screens, on the streets and in meetings. He absolutely refused to accept anything other than proper justice for the victims of the exposure to asbestos that had taken place when people were in the employ of James Hardie. That story is a well-known one, and the member for Charlton and others in this House were involved in that campaign. After six years of battle, it was to Bernie’s and many others’ great credit that the compensation package was finally agreed. I think that his campaigning throughout that time, quite often in significant physical distress, earnt him the respect of all Australians. He literally served his community. His was a sterling effort undertaken while having the daily battle of dealing with the symptoms of the disease.

Bernie started work with James Hardie at its Camellia facility in 1968. He left his job in 1974. Some 137 others continued to work at that facility. As of 2004, approximately only 10 of those former employees were still alive. That tragic loss fuelled what was Bernie’s anger at times but was also absolutely justifiable outrage and indignation over people having been treated in such a way, people who until such time as James Hardie finally delivered compensation found themselves struggling with the ravages of the disease and then being cast aside as a consequence of it.

Bernie Banton was made a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 13 June 2005 for service to the community, particularly as an advocate for people affected by asbestos related diseases. On 5 December there was the occasion of his funeral. His family had been offered a state funeral by the New South Wales government as testament to his enduring service, and both the Australian and the New South Wales state flags on all government buildings and establishments in New South Wales were lowered to half-mast on that date as a mark of respect. What a journey for someone who was a fighter for working people and who said continually that this issue was about justice. Despite how physically ravaged Bernie and others found themselves, there was a stronger spirit to stand up for the rights of people and to continue that campaign until justice was done.

Bernie was a warm, feisty, funny, tough and tenacious individual. He was a master of the one-liner, which got him on television on regular occasions, just as he should have been on television on regular occasions, given his message was a compelling and necessary one for Australians to hear. All of those who worked on the campaign and all of those who knew him will mark him as an individual of rare courage and considerable grit and determination. He never gave in. He never gave up hope that a settlement would be reached and that justice would be done. We commemorate his life’s experience and we offer our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

5:38 pm

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to be able to join this condolence debate to associate myself with the comments made by other honourable members about a number of Australians who have made a very significant contribution to our nation in various ways and also about Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand. I knew Mr Keogh and Ms Mayer. I knew Bob Collins and also Sir Charles Court. I had not come across Sir Edmund Hillary, a person whom I greatly admired. Having condolence debates for not only former members of parliament but also those who have made significant contributions to Australia and more widely is a very important step forward. I first got to know Len Keogh when he seemed to be the regular government representative opening facilities in the electorates held by opposition coalition members. He did so with grace. It was always good to see him. He was well respected, and I know that his constituents in the electorate of Bowman had a very high regard for him. A friend of mine worked with Mr Keogh for quite a considerably long period of time and she spoke very highly of him.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts outlined the contribution made by Mr Bernie Banton in relation to the issue of asbestos, and I just want to associate myself with the remarks made by the minister.

Sir Edmund Hillary was an icon in New Zealand and when he passed on there was an incredible outpouring of national grief. I read about it in quite a few of the New Zealand papers. I always respected Sir Edmund Hillary but I was not aware of the way in which he was a role model for all New Zealanders. When he passed on, New Zealand as a nation felt that a living national treasure had departed, as indeed he had. There was also a sense of national grieving and an outpouring of national sentiment. Clearly, New Zealand felt that one of their favourite sons was lost forever.

I do respect Sir Charles Court. I admire him for a number of reasons. He is someone who very successfully led the government in Western Australia. Depending on where one stands politically, one might have a view on some of the decisions that were made by Sir Charles and his government over the years. He had the pleasure of seeing one of his sons, Richard Court, subsequently become the Premier. Sir Charles Court, unlike some other political figures, actually chose the time of his retirement. I think it is regrettable that so often in public life political leaders stay beyond their use-by date. There are very few leaders who, like Sir Charles Court, accept that it is time to move on. He passed the mantle on as Premier and, in doing so, I think he enhanced his own reputation as the leader of that state.

I do not intend to detain the Main Committee for long, except to say that I want to associate myself with all of the comments made on this condolence motion to date. With respect to the deceased persons, in the case of those who were Australians, I want to applaud their service to Australia, and I would like to applaud the service to the world of Sir Edmund Hillary, known affectionately in New Zealand as ‘Sir Ed Hillary’, who of course is a role model for us all.

5:42 pm

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I understand it is the wish of honourable members to signify at this stage their respect and sympathy by rising in their places.

Honourable members having stood in their places

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the House.

5:43 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That further proceedings be conducted in the House.

Question agreed to.