||Issue No. 229||16 July 2004|
The Sins of Our Fathers
Interview: Power and the Passion
Unions: Tackling the Heavy Hitters
Industrial: Seeing the Forest For The Wood
Housing: Home Truths
International: Boycott Busters
Economics: Ideology and Free Trade
History: Long Shadow of a Forgotten Man
Review: Chewing the Fat
Poetry: Dear John
The Locker Room
The Sins of Our Fathers
It is a story about morality and how an organisation that committed heinous crimes is trying to duck responsibility.
James Hardie is not the victim of market fluctuations, mismanagement or even the sort of fraud that has landed the heads of Enron in the dock. James Hardie sits alongside the tobacco industry, Union Carbide and Exxon as a company that profited from human misery.
Let us be blunt. James Hardie is in its current position because it perpetrated a crime of massive proportions, knowingly selling products that killed for years and years, ignoring and even suppressing the evidence to maintain its profits.
Tens of thousands of Australian have died premature and painful deaths because of this crime; tens of thousands more are expected to in the years to come.
If James Hardie was a person, not a corporation, it would be facing murder charges, not manslaughter. The evidence suggests the cover-up was conscious, calculated and ongoing.
While these sins were committed decades ago by managers no longer with James Hardie, the damage is ongoing.
The concern must be that the very values that allowed James Hardie to flog asbestos products long after it knew it was deadly, still pervades a company prepared to shift resources offshore so victims will die penniless deaths.
The architects of this plot should not be allowed to hide behind corporations law, fiduciary duty and boardroom decisions, they should face the force of law and be exposed for what they have become - criminals.
This is not just some bag-snatcher skipping town, it is the equivalent of a mass-murderer breaking out of jail - and yes, you do have to wonder about the wardens as security seemed pretty light at the time.
And James Hardie's solution to the current predicament? A statutory scheme that would cap payouts to victims and presumably be underwritten by the taxpayer.
You only need to turn to New Zealand where such a scheme is in place; payments average $A90,000 for claimants whose lives are cut short. Ninety thousand dollars, just two years average salary. Now think what the reaction would be if a multiple murderer were sentenced to two years. There would be justifiable outrage.
So what should we do with corporations that kill? Unlike a certain Leader of the Free World we don't believe in capital punishment in Australia. We believe in rehabilitation and reparations in the hope that some good will ultimately come from the crime.
We do not wish James Hardie failure or collapse - in fact, we want it to thrive; not just so it can continue to compensate the victims of its crimes, but so it can stand as an ongoing reminder of what happens when a corporation puts profits above morality.
But current shareholders in Australia and abroad need to know what they are buying into - a company with debts to settle that no profit forecast or share price can justify walking away from.
If people are to maintain confidence in our justice system then James Hardie can not be allowed to get away with its Amsterdam Solution; it must continue to pay as long as lives are ruined by the sins of its fathers.
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