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New South Wales: thousands farewell asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton at state funeral.

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Wednesday 5 December 2007 

New South Wales: thousands farewell asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton at state funeral


MARK COLVIN: When Bernie Banton began his quest for justice for asbestos sufferers, he promised to keep up the fight until they put him in a box. 


He campaigned as an ordinary working man, but his state funeral today proved that Bernie Banton was anything but ordinary. 


The Prime Minister and almost 3,000 fellow mourners came to pay their respects to the man in an oxygen mask who made legal and corporate history. 


Kevin Rudd hailed him as a national hero. 


Simon Santow was at the funeral for PM. 


(Sound of choir singing) 


BRUCE BANTON: Her Excellency, the Governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir AC; Sir Nicholas Shehadie; the Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Kevin Rudd MP; the New South Wales Premier, the Honourable Mr Morris Iemma … 


SIMON SANTOW: You could be forgiven for thinking it was Bernie Banton conducting his own funeral service, but the familiar voice belonged to his brother, the Reverend Bruce Banton, as he welcomed a stellar line-up of mourners to the Olympic SuperDome at Homebush. 


(Sound of choir singing) 


MORRIS IEMMA: My first impression of Bernie was his sense of humour. I recall in 2004, when he heard about the payout to the departing chief executive of James Hardie and his response, "It's taken my breath away, and I only have 20 per cent left as it is". 


Now, for some reason this man who had never been active in politics, in media, or in public speaking, turned out to be a natural. 


SIMON SANTOW: The Prime Minister revealed he'd taken an hour out of the recent election campaign to visit Bernie Banton. Kevin Rudd told the funeral service the experience helped bring him back to what really mattered in life. 


KEVIN RUDD: Bernie was an ordinary bloke who decided to become something extraordinary, and through that became an extraordinary hero in our age, an age where we feared we would no longer have heroes anymore. 


We will sit down with Bernie's family soon to work out how best to honour his memory into the future. For Karen and Bernie's children, your grief is greater today than anyone's, because the truth is, Bernie died too young. 


Bernie, I'll miss you, mate. Bernie, the nation will miss you, mate. 


SIMON SANTOW: But in amongst the dignitaries, it was left to the people who knew Bernie Banton the most to pay tribute. 


Granddaughter, 12-year-old Kaylee Banton. 


KAYLEE BANTON: I have a dream that one day, on the steps of Parliament House, the sons of former James Hardie workers, and the sons of former James Hardie owners, will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. 


I have a dream that one day even the State of New South Wales, a glorious state, sweltering with the heat of sickness and asbestosis will be transformed into an oasis of morality and justice. 


SIMON SANTOW: And the asbestos campaigner's widow, Karen Banton. 


KAREN BANTON: Bernie used his God-given gifts to secure justice for thousands of people against the greed of a corporate giant. Fittingly, his favourite Old Testament character has, for many years, been David. The never take no for an answer attitude of Bernie Banton brings hope nationally, and globally, that good will always triumph over evil. 


SIMON SANTOW: And his sister, Grace Banton-O'Connor, now living in the United States. 


GRACE BANTON-O'CONNOR: Even though he came to the point where he was totally dependent upon oxygen to be able to function, he still fought with every ounce of his being to see the wrongs perpetrated by wicked men and women upon unsuspecting workers made public, and those responsible forced to be held accountable. 


SIMON SANTOW: Outside, the service ended, rain and strong winds didn't deter hundreds of mourners from a final tribute, many brandishing union flags as they escorted Bernie Banton's coffin several hundred metres away to the waiting hearse. 


VOX POP: Thought it was a great service. Bernie deserved every bit of it. 


VOX POP 2: He stood up for everyone. His fighting spirit is … I've met him there at a few of the rallies, and he just never took a backward step, and fought for others. To stand up there with the pain he must've been in was a fantastic achievement in my opinion, you know. 


VOX POP 3: It was absolutely a tribute to a fabulous man, and we're delighted to have been here. It's been an absolute honour. 


SIMON SANTOW: I think the question a lot of people want answered is do you think that his legacy will live on, that people will remember him? 


VOX POP 3: How couldn't it? How could it not possibly? Such a great man and such a tribute to him, and a very fitting tribute to a fighting man, a working man. Absolutely was, he was honoured today by everybody present - all the workers, all the unions showing up, all his family, and the public who felt so touched by this amazing person. 


(Sound of people chanting, "Hip-hip, hooray!") 


MARK COLVIN: Mourners cheering the late Bernie Banton at today's state funeral. Simon Santow was our reporter.