Interview: Trading Places
Safety: Snow Job
Politics: In the Vanguard
Unions: Gentle Giant Goes For Gold
Bad Boss: 'Porker' Chases Blue Ribbon
International: Cruising For A Bruising
History: Under the Influence
Economics: Working Capital
Review: Fahrenheit 9/11
Poetry: Bad Intelligence Rap
Satire: Osama Bin Manchu
The Locker Room
Tom Goes Asexual
Road Rage At Work
Democracy In Action
It was a bright winter's day in the Snowy Mountains when mortality came tugging on Bernie Banton's collar.
The workaholic was taking a rare break with wife, Karen, when he found he couldn't get enough breath to propel his squash-tuned frame to the ski lift.
The holiday was a dud but the Bantons brushed it off until several months later, at a party to welcome in 1999, when Bernie ran into the mother of a friend from way back.
Just how far back? Banton had to scratch his head. It had been, he decided, between 1968 and 1974 when he had worked with Col Marshall at James Hardie BI in Sydney's western suburbs.
"I hadn't seen Eileen for ages," Banton said, "I went over to give her a hug and she got very emotional. She had lost Col and all the memories came back."
Karen caught bits of their conversation - asbestos, mesothelioma, James Hardie - and her mind flashed back to the Snowies.
Weeks later the couple and their eight-year-old, Dean, moved into the house they had worked for in West Pennant Hills but Bernie struggled with the stairs.
Within a month he had a death sentence of his own, courtesy of "asbestosis and asbestos-related plural disease".
A prognosis like that, Banton says with only a slight grin, "takes your breath away".
"It really does. You have to go home and say - hey Babe, I am not as good as I was. It's all going to be downhill from here."
It meant immediate change. The dream house had to go for a start.
Banton was finished as a workaholic and it wouldn't be long before his wife threw in her administrative job. There were time consuming battles ahead to get compensation out of the Dust Diseases Tribunal, and the ever-present fear that asbestosis would become mesothelioma, the virulent lung cancer that usually disposes of victims within months.
You don't need "meso", though, to know you're in trouble.
Over the last three years, Banton has fought off severe bouts of pleurisy, surgical emphesemia and pneumonia; had a lung biopsy, and a left lung pleurodesis where the organ is dusted with talcum powder to keep it inflated.
"It's painful even thinking about it," he says of three weeks in hospitals. "It reminds you of how crook you actually have to be to die."
For Karen, the biggest changes were personal. Dean had to get his head around his Dad's sudden grumpiness and she struggled as the robust, outdoors man she had married was confined by tubes and oxygen bottles.
"Bernie was unstoppable," she recalled, "totally competitive. He was always working and when he played, he played to win, even with the children."
Banton says his 11 grand children all know they "can't just run in and jump on Poppy. I can't just go out the front and kick a football or play cricket with young Deano. It is very distressing."
In the corner of the lounge his oxygen concentrator hums away. The large metal cyclinder, alongside, is linked to his nose by green, plastic tubes.
Banton has been diagnosed with 40 percent lung capacity. When he bends over, that is halved, which is why Karen normally ties his shoes.
Asbestosis doesn't crush your lungs as much as encase them in something akin to concrete, meaning they can't expand. Experts predict it will take 50,000 Australians to their graves by the time it peaks mid-century.
That's a toll of epidemic proportions, accounting for more Australians than the First World War.
And, in Banton's case, all roads lead to Grand Avenue, Camellia, and James Hardie Industries.
James Hardie, industrial blue chip and stock market darling, was Australia's largest producer of asbestos-related products.
Evidence of the dangers surfaced in the 1890s and became generally accepted, in the scientific community, by the 1930s but James Hardie went right on producing the stuff and pocketing the returns.
Back in 1968, Banton and his workmates didn't have a clue. In fact, when his foreman brother, Ted, offered him a start on the night shift, he figured it was just about the perfect job.
Banton could clock on at 10.30pm, go home for an early shower, and spend daylight hours plying his trade as a painter-decorator.
"I was just trying to get ahead," he explained. "It's what you did in those days. I had a young family and wanted to give them some security."
But it didn't take too long before he started to ask questions.
When workers went for lunch or finished a shift, he said, they would be coated head to foot in white dust. Office staff dubbed them "the snowmen".
All James Hardie provided, in the early days, was an air hose to blow the dust into the atmosphere.
Eventually, Banton became a delegate for the Miscellaneous Workers Union and spearheaded a campaign for better facilities and protection. Management agreed to supply paper masks.
At 57, his energies and a good deal of Karen's are directed at helping fellow sufferers through the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia. He is the vice president and she served on the committee until last year.
The foundation has brought them up against James Hardie and the various guises it uses to sanitise its name and avoid compensating people killed by its products.
Banton and his portable oxygen bottle sat through most of the two-month inquiry into James Hardie's behaviour. It is only when the company is mentioned that the couple's good humour desserts them.
They are appalled by the restructure that saw Hardies flea to Holland, leaving just $293 million to compensate Australians who will die from contact with its products. They point out even that figure is "theoretical" with asbestos-contaminated land accounting for most of the "assets".
Banton wants a one-on-one with California-based boss of bosses, Peter Macdonald, so he can tell him exactly what he thinks of him and his corporate mates - try to shake a bit of humanity out of him on behalf of the dying and their families.
But Macdonald won't oblige. He went to extraordinary lengths to avoid Banton when the commission was in Sydney, at one point choosing to leave by the fire escape. When his evidence concluded, he jetted back to his gated community outside Los Angeles.
Karen says there is nothing selfish in her husband's determination. When he was pronounced "60 percent dusted", the Dust Diseases Tribunal awarded six-figure compensation against AMABA or AMACA, the Hardie subsidiaries left with access to the parent company's $293 million.
But that money has just about run out and future victims are looking at next to nothing by comparison, while Hardies has taken billions offshore.
"I didn't work for AMABA or AMACA," Banton explains. "I worked for James Hardie BI.
"It's my duty to point out how morally bankrupt the CEO and directors of James Hardie have been to victims of asbestos. Unless they change their tune, I will continue to do that until they put me in a box."
Yes, he concedes, this has become personal.
Of 137 workmates he left at Camellia, 30 years ago, he knows of only six who are still alive.
James Hardie BI workers still hold Christmas reunions at the Wentworthville Leagues Club on the first Friday of each December. In 2003, only two people were able to attend.
Ted, the brother who got him his start, died of mesophelioma; another brother, Albert, has asbestosis, and so does he.
"Why wouldn't it be personal?" Banton asks.
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