Crusader for those to follow ... Bernie Banton, pictured in August 2007. He died in November that year. Photo: Jonathan Carroll
According to one insider, James Hardie executives used to snarl whenever Bernie Banton's face appeared on television. "Is he really sick?" they would jeer.
They knew, as we all did, that Banton's screen presence was devastating. The combination of his pithy one-liners and trade union protest finally forced Hardie to the negotiating table.
But anyone close to Banton knew his oxygen mask was no act. He, like anyone with asbestosis, became increasingly breathless walking along the street. Stairs were a particular struggle. And he did not need to be told he had a high chance of developing the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Most of his workmates from Hardie BI had already died from it when we met in 2004.
Along with other asbestos disease sufferers, Banton placed a high priority on research to find a cure.
I remember visiting him during his final weeks, when he proudly pointed out the window from his bed in Sydney's Concord Hospital, to the construction site of what is now the Bernie Banton Centre.
Since Banton's death, despite the fine words extolling his struggle, funding for asbestos research has dramatically declined under the Labor government.
At his state funeral the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd eulogised him as an "Aussie hero" who left the world a better place. A few weeks before, it had been the Coalition's Tony Abbott who had to apologise after he attacked the wheel-chair-bound Banton for demanding Medicare listing for a new mesothelioma drug. Abbott had called it a stunt.
Since then, as foreign affairs minister, Rudd had urged Labor to lead the world in implementing asbestos bans and assisting victims, particularly in Asia where use of the killer fibre is expanding rapidly.
What is not widely known is until 2004 it was legal to import asbestos into Australia. Abbott as health minister stopped it.
It was also Abbott who, in 2006, increased the budget for research and treatment to a record level, providing more than $6 million.
As a result, the National Research Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases was set up in Perth to co-ordinate a multi-state, multi-disciplinary research effort into asbestos diseases. Perth was the natural place to base the centre, as the historical centre of the Australian mesothelioma epidemic.
Eleven research projects around the country were allocated three years' funding.
Despite the centre's success, Labor rejected a bid to move the search for a cancer cure to the next level. Instead the government slashed funds by more than half.
As prime minister Kevin Rudd had talked the talk, but failed to walk the walk. His successor, Julia Gillard - a former partner with the asbestos plaintiff law firm Slater & Gordon - hasn't been any better.
Australia is well-placed in the world quest for a mesothelioma cure. We have the highest per capita incidence of the disease, due to our massive use of asbestos up until the late 1980s. Most of that was due to the Hardie empire, which had factories in every mainland state capital.
Australia is a world leader in asbestos cancer research, says Professor Bruce Robinson from Perth's Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, a director of the research centre.
The latest area of research is the effort to crack the code for mesothelioma.
Since the human genome project, it is possible to map the genome sequence for a particular cancer.
This research has enabled scientists to identify and block the molecules responsible for triggering melanoma and lung cancer. The same could be done for mesothelioma.
"It's not easy," Robinson says. "There are 6 billion letters in the cancer code for mesothelioma. To crack the code will cost a lot and it'll need lots of people. But it's most exciting. It's cutting edge."
The government has already adopted in principle a policy of prioritised removal of asbestos from the built environment, to ensure no more Australians are exposed to asbestos dust that one day will kill them.
But, warns Robert Vojakovic, president of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, asbestos is a ticking bomb.
"What we need desperately is a cure for this disease," he says.
"Even if someone waved a magic wand today and eliminated all asbestos products from the community, there are still at least several million Australians who have had sufficient asbestos exposure to place some of them at risk to develop asbestos cancers or mesothelioma."
The impact of asbestos in Australia has been far worse than many expected.
I recall asking industry apologists at James Hardie and elsewhere in the 1970s what if they were wrong? What if there was no safe level? What if it was possible to get cancer from a few hours exposure to the dust? What if white asbestos also caused mesothelioma?
It turns out they were wrong. Worse, by the late 1970s they knew their public statements were wrong. While researching Killer Company, I came across files of the James Hardie PR spinners.
At the same time they were reassuring the public that cutting asbestos cement sheets could not give a person asbestos-induced cancer, and resisting moves to put warnings on products, privately there were doubts.
A "potential problem", wrote one PR consultant in 1979, was "mesothelioma among builders and tradesmen whose only readily identifiable contact with asbestos has been by way of working with asbestos cement".
Challenged years later, he maintained it would have been drawing a long bow then to suggest tradesmen were at risk. He didn't know I had been reading his memos.
The former James Hardie chairman Meredith Hellicaronce told me the whole asbestos tragedy was "a big mistake". It was big, that's true. But it was more a case of turning a blind eye than simple ignorance. Australia is suffering the consequences.
The task of eliminating asbestos from our environment is huge. It is in places most people never suspect. What would Bernie Banton say, if presented with a choice of eliminating the fibre from our environment or finding a cure for mesothelioma? I'm certain he'd ask for both.
Matt Peacock is the author of Killer Company, the book which inspired the mini-series Devil's Dust, which starts on Sunday on ABC1.