Asbestos Activism Down-Under 

Report by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Since 1979, the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) has been working to improve the plight of the country's asbestos victims. From a handful of members and a few cardboard files, the Society has grown into one of the leading grass-roots organizations working in this field. With more than 12,000 supporters nationwide, the Society offers asbestos victims and their families a wide range of services amongst which is the availability of on-site medical care. The ADSA medical advisor, Dr. Greg Deleuil, holds a clinic at the Society's Perth office twice a week. In 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, Dr. Deleuil examined 1,407 ADSA members. In November 2007, on behalf of the ADSA, he took delivery of a state-of-the-art spirometer, a pulmonary function evaluation testing machine, donated by a local business group.


Dr. Greg Deleuil (right) with Peter Harries, representing the (Perth) Lodge of Sportsmen, test-driving the spirometer donated by Lodge members

The Christmas season is a very busy time for the Society. Recognizing the poignancy of the holiday season, events are held to bring together the ADSA fellowship. On November 30, 2007 the 12th annual Memorial Service took place. The packed congregation at the Redemptorist Monastery contained hundreds of ADSA members, most of whom had lost someone they loved to an asbestos-related disease. Also present, were local and federal politicians, medical specialists and ADSA legal advisors. Paying tribute to all the asbestos-injured, ADSA President Robert Vojakovic said that since 1996, the Society had lost 2,119 members to asbestos diseases.


ADSA President Robert Vojakovic

Robert spoke sadly of an unending stream of new asbestos disease cases in Western Australia and paid tribute to Bernie Banton, an asbestos sufferer in New South Wales, who had died just a few days earlier. For many Australians, Bernie had become the human face of the country's asbestos epidemic. Like his brother Ted, Bernie died of mesothelioma having been exposed to asbestos whilst working for James Hardie Industries. Another brother, Albert, who worked at the same Sydney factory, has asbestosis.

The main part of the service was concluded with a ceremony during which members of the ADSA community were asked to light colored candles symbolizing an aspect of the asbestos tragedy or an ADSA objective:

  • white for those who have died,
  • green as a symbol of healing,
  • purple to offer hope for those still suffering,
  • blue for the love and care given to the injured,
  • red as a symbol of energy for medical researchers,
  • yellow for the love shared within the community,
  • gold commemorating the cycle of life.



Lighting the seven symbolic candles

As the gold candle was lit, the congregation was offered the opportunity to light candles of remembrance for those who had died. Throughout the hall, people got to their feet and began to move; three slowly moving queues inched sombrely towards the front of the hall. The manifestation of so much loss was overwhelming.

After the service was over, people caught up with ADSA friends and others – doctors, nurses, lawyers, ban-asbestos campaigners – they had met during prolonged struggles with the deadly asbestos diseases that had devastated the lives of so many present.




For someone from the northern hemisphere, the idea of Santa Claus coming to town on a balmy summer's day does not compute. Nevertheless, in Australia, Christmas is celebrated amidst sunshine and blue skies with presents conveyed on a sleigh pulled by kangaroos not reindeer. Despite the Australian heat, Santa still wears the traditional red costume and has not yet shaved off his full beard. I know this because I had the chance to see him up close during the ADSA Christmas Picnic on December 9.


A well-known figure - and the bloke in the red suit is quite popular too

Seven hundred people came to Whiteman Park to enjoy a traditional Aussie barbecue. The best thing of all was that the folks doing the barbecuing were the ADSA lawyers!

The weather for the picnic was just right: it was a moderately warm day with plenty of shade and a gentle breeze. The picnic is the traditional way the ADSA rounds of its year of social activities. Live music was provided by the band: Rhythm n Groove and Peter Harries, a popular TV variety entertainer, kept the children spellbound with his Australian rendition of the carol: the 12 days of Christmas.


Peter Harries getting everyone into the Christmas spirit

Where the English version records that on the first day of Christmas, a partridge in a pear tree is given, in Australia the gift is a kookaburra in a gum tree. Similarly other gifts are replaced by Australian specialities so that 10 Lords a Leaping, 11 Pipers Piping, 12 Drummers Drumming, become 10 Wombats Washing, 11 Lizards Leaping and 12 Possums Playing!


Robert and Rose Marie Vojakovic support some of the younger singers

All the kids joined in the singing as did many of the adults. It was great fun.

The amount of work that goes into planning, organizing and producing a barbecue for 700 people is enormous and yet the ADSA staff and volunteers managed it all with the aplomb typical of the Aussies: “no worries mate” philosophy. In different ways, the memorial service and picnic achieved the same goal: providing a few minutes or hours of fellowship with others who have experienced the same heart-wrenching tragedy. With tears and with laughter, the ADSA members got through another day; the help and support of the Society made this difficult task just a little bit easier.

January 8, 2008



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