Brave woman who revealed James Hardies “fines” sham
James Hardie’s bosses should forget it if they imagine their company’s descent into a self-inflicted public relations purgatory will end any time soon.
It’s not going to happen while there are victims of asbestos-related diseases and their families capable of asking questions no-one in authority seems to anticipate or is prepared to answer without being pushed.
You see, so many of the people affected by the asbestos scourge are just so bloody courageous, eloquent and insightful in projecting the enormity of their suffering and loss—combined with an unrelenting quest for justice.
But why in this saga of corporate perfidy is it always up to the little guys to ask the hard questions? First it was Bernie Banton – sucking in life through ever present oxygen leads – going down so valiantly in campaigning for adequate compensation for victims.
A few days ago, a self-described ‘mesothelioma widow’ named Ann – a first-time talkback radio caller – continued the Banton legacy posing a killer question to authorities that they should have thought of long before she had to go on radio to ask it.
Ann’s bull’s eye question uncovered a disturbing twist in the outcome of last week’s banning of a posse of former James Hardie bosses in addition to fines of around $700,000. Hesitant at first to go on air, Ann summoned the courage to call Andrew Moore on 2GB’s Drive program last Thursday afternoon.
“I’d just like these James Hardie people, if they could have come and sat with my family and myself a week before Christmas when my husband passed away,” she told Andrew. “Maybe they would think differently.” And then came the ‘mesothelioma widow’s’ question – so potent for its simplicity – that has unearthed a bizarre anomaly in Australia’s corporations law. “The money they’ve been fined – where is it going?” Ann asked. “Is it going to help the sufferers?”
Stumped for a top of the head answer, we felt we owed it to Ann, our loyal listener, to try to find the answer. Inquiries revealed, as they say, a can of worms. Anyone in ‘radioland’ who assumed the James Hardie fines would automatically flow to the victims was wrong—unless, of course, someone in government intervened to make that happen.
But who would imagine the fines once paid will end up in Canberra, presumably in consolidated revenue? And who would approve of that? Surely no right thinking Australians whose hearts bleed for asbestos disease sufferers a they fight for life and breath and who worry about the coming wave of asbestos victims.
It wasn’t the judge’s fault – just an inflexible law that prevents the exercising of a little humanity. Even if Supreme Court judge Ian Gzell had wanted to, he had no power under the Corporations Act to direct payment to the compensation fund. It has to go to the Commonwealth. That’s the law.
Fortunately, this latest asbestos dilemma is being pursued. Barry Robson from the Asbestos Diseases Foundation and Paul Bastian from the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) are on the case.
Kevin Rudd can soon expect their call for the James Hardie fines to be re-directed to the asbestos victims’ fund. It’s a political no brainer for the PM – great symbolism, wonderful headlines. Nothing more needed at this stage than to write a government cheque for $700,000, followed in good time by a change to the Corporations Act to better protect victims – another good headline.
Before Judge Gzell handed down his penalties last week, Barry Robson and Paul Bastian hoped they’d be pursuing four to five million dollars to have diverted to the compensation fund. Getting the $700,000 has become a matter of principle as much as anything. “I don’t think $700,000 is going to affect the Australian Budget,” says Barry.
And when you think about it, if people such as our talkback caller Ann had someone beyond their tireless asbestos campaigners looking out for their interests – answering critical questions before victims feel compelled to ask them—- they could concentrate on grieving for their loss.
“I remember after my husband, Peter’s court case, as we were walking out the door they shook our hands and said, ‘good luck’. I turned around and said, ‘you can have your money back, if you can find a cure for my husband.’ They just hung their heads and walked away.”
Message to James Hardie and our politicians – there are other courageous ‘Anns’ out there with tough questions. And they’ve got the ticker to ask them in the public place. Be prepared.
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