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The Last Bastian
Interview with Peter Lewis
When did you first think that James Hardie had a problem?
2001; when they announced the establishment of the fund. They announced the $293 million would be put into a fund. We discussed this with the victims and some of the lawyers that work in the field and we came to the conclusion even back then that it would be about $800 million short.
So where did you take those concerns?
The first thing we did, about a week after the announcement, we wrote to the Carr Government, we wrote to John Della Bosca and Bob Debus and sent a copy to Bob Carr. We gave them 10 questions that they should ask James Hardie about the actuarial figures used to set up the fund and indicated that from our point of view that this was a cynical attempt to get out of the liability and bullet-proof the assets. We warned then that the fund of $293 million would run out very quickly.
Well obviously those warnings weren't heeded at that stage. Did that surprise you?
Well, I can't speak for the Carr Government and what they did or didn't do. But it certainly surprised us that James Hardie was allowed to pretty much go on with their plans unchecked.
How close were they to getting away with this?
They may still get away with it.
Without getting the ball rolling at that stage, do you think things would have panned out the way they have?
No, not with the intensity that we've been able to generate. We - and that is the AMWU along with the MUA, ETU and CFMEU - continued to raise the issue from 2001. When they announced the inquiry in 2004 after the announcement came down that the funds were short - by the same actuaries that originally forecast $293 million - we were pretty well armed then to go after them.
How much resources and time has your union put into fighting the case of asbestos victims over the last three or four years?
Quite a bit, but I don't think that's the point.
No, I don't think it is but the point I'm raising is you've got people like the Treasurer who are now trying to stamp on Hardie's grave but they are also in the politics of getting rid of unions. Without unions there would have been no Hardies Inquiry ...
There are many examples throughout history in terms of social changes where unions have been critical to that role and clearly without the alliance between the number of unions in New South Wales and asbestos victims, particularly the MUA in the early days, we wouldn't be in the position we're in now. The victims wouldn't have been able to rally the community or the media to the extent that we've been able to do it.
Has it surprised you once that once that depth of the short fall became known, the way the media and public outrage has built up behind it
The trigger point when people actually started to listen was when the actuary finally announced or, the fund announced, that it was broke. The human tragedy of it was always in my view going to make it a story but it needed some factuals for the media to grab hold of it. But certainly when they did the analysis of what we said had gone on since 2001 it's built up a very big head of steam very quickly and rightly so, because it was so immoral.
Do you feel vindicated?
I don't know if it's a question of being vindicated. I think we're just happy along with the victims that the issues finally been addressed.
How do you rate the performance of the State Government, not back in 2001 but since the actuaries report in the shortfall?
Following public opinion.... Good.
And the Premier this week has made another announcement on reversing privilege to speed up the ASIC investigation. How far has the government come in addressing your concerns?
The announcement that the Premier made this week is something that we wrote to him about prior to the release of the findings of the inquiry . We asked that he set up a Special Prosecutor to prosecute Hardies executives and their advisors where appropriate. That received some criticism from Jackson. Nonetheless, we still think that we think that is an enormous pressure point placed on James Hardie .
One of the other things we've put to the Government is something the ACT Government has acted on and that is the creation of an 'Asbestos Safety Certificate' scheme. We think the Carr Government along with all the State Governments should be moving quickly to do something similar because that's actually a positive act that will save lives from that exposure. To date the Carr Government has done nothing like that.
The Premier seems to be happy to be out there in the media and doing what he can that is probably a little bit easier and simpler - the hard yards are yet to be taken by the State Government.
The Jackson Inquiry makes a moral judgment that James Hardie has done the wrong thing - but it also suggests that the law is not going to undo this. How sustained is moral pressure going have to be and how do you actually sustain moral pressure on a company that's doing the wrong thing?
I think the moral pressures have been an important part of the campaign all the way through. I'm not so sure about your interpretation of where the company is legally. We don't agree, for example, that it would be futile to sue some of the other players in terms of compensation - that's something that the fund has to decide but at the moment its got no money. So that needs to be overcome.
We were also heartened in the Netherlands to hear that their view is that a treaty may not be necessary to enforce the judgment in the Netherlands and we still have a view that the Supreme Court of New South Wales has a role to play in that the initial decision to allow the re-incorporation. In our view, and I think now supported by the Jackson Inquiry, that decision was based on a misleading statement before the Supreme Court.
You went over to Holland before the international shareholders meeting. What was the feeling on the ground over there?
Well if you talk about the trade union movement in Holland and the asbestos groups, it's very good. Our metal counterpart in Holland the FMV had done an enormous amount of work. Its received a lot of support from the support from the Dutch Parliamentary Socialist Party, it has been raised in Parliament on several occasions, its been on the front pages of some of the local newspapers over there.
When we got over there they organised asbestos groups from England and Scotland to come over and join the rally of protest. They'd organised other unions so the depth of support in the FMV from our point of view from the delegation that went over there pretty overwhelming.
Does that lead you to have some confidence that if nothing else works an international boycott does have some chance of success?
Certainly the situation in Europe is that we'd get enormous support through our contacts now, particularly our Metal Union counterpart in Holland but also I think through the International etalworkers' Federation that is based in Geneva.
I think the big IF we have at the moment, the big unknown, and the area we need to tap into is the American market. That's where James Hardie makes its money but at the moment the unions are totally committed to the US election campaign. So the reaction time on the ground there's a been a bit slow.
Finally, I just want to give you a hypothetical. We'll get rid of Mc Donald and put you in as CEO of James Hardie as of tomorrow
Well I've got to say salary package and redundancy package are really, really enticing but I don't want to move from where I am at the moment.
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