Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has told the state funeral for Bernie Banton that the asbestos campaigner has become a symbol of basic human decency.
Mr Rudd, who singled Mr Banton out for praise during his election victory speech, said today he was an extraordinary man and Australia is poorer for his passing.
“Bernie Banton was a great Australian hero,” Mr Rudd told thousands of mourners at Sydney's Acer Arena.
“A hero in an age when we had all become so cynical that we didn't believe there could be heroes.
“He was an Australian hero with an extraordinary heart who lived an extraordinary life.”
Mr Rudd also spoke of his last meeting with Mr Banton, who requested that the Labor leader publicly recognise the role unions played in bringing justice to those who had suffered in the battle against building products company James Hardie.
“I salute the roles of these unions in bringing justice to working people,” Mr Rudd said.
A real hero: Nelson
“People throw the term hero all over the place, but Bernie was a real hero in every sense of the word,” Opposition leader Brendon Nelson said.
“He carried the hopes, aspirations and ideals of everyday Australians. He's made us believe that if you've got something you believe in, and you've got right on your side, you can have a win.
“We are a better people for having had Bernie Banton.”
Widow remberes her 'soulmate'
The widow of Bernie Banton has thanked mourners attending his state funeral in Sydney, saying she's lost her best friend and soul mate.
Karen Banton paid tribute to her 61-year-old husband in front of some 2,000 mourners at the Acer Arena, in Sydney's Olympic Park.
“Bernie Banton … my best friend and soul mate here on earth for the past 16 years,” she said.
“God brought Bernie into my life when I was newly widowed and my toddler son Dean, fatherless.
“After seven years of active family life together, Bernie's health steadily declined following his diagnosis of asbestos disease nine years ago.
“For the last three-and-a-half years, Dean and I have shared Bernie with you all, especially via our many friends in the electronic and print media.
“In return, you have blessed Bernie, Dean and I with your prayers, love and gifts of flowers, cards and support and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
“Thank you too for the many special tributes – they have been most humbling and heartening.”
Mr Banton, 61, died from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma early last week after years of fighting for fellow sufferers.
He won a second battle for personal compensation from James Hardie Industries just days before his death, a settlement which will help his family financially.
During the federal election campaign, he also won a long battle for government subsidies for the palliative drug Alimta.