RIP Robert Vojakovic: WA Hero


It’s August, 1988.
I’m a young reporter, sitting with other journalists in a packed Supreme Court room in Perth.
Two men, Peter Heys and Stephen Barrow, both dying from exposure to asbestos, have taken on their former employers, which, they claim, didn’t warn them of the dangers of being exposed to asbestos in their work at Wittenoom.
There are teams of lawyers in expensive suits representing CSR and its subsidiary, Medalco.
Representing Heys and Barrow are the lawyers from law firm, Slater and Gordon.
It’s something of a David and Goliath case. Others in WA with deadly diseases from asbestos exposure had sued, but either lost their cases, or sadly, had died before their day in court.
But the judge, Barry Rowland, ended up declaring yes, CSR had been negligent.
Both men were awarded compensation. A memorable day indeed.
It was a day of celebration for Robert Vojakovic, the 48-year-old man who’d sat in the courtroom every day, listening attentively to every legal argument.
Born in 1940, he’d come to Western Australia in 1961, and like so many other young migrants, he’d headed north, after hearing there was work to be had up at Wittenoom, where blue asbestos was mined.
But after a short spell, he and his wife Rose Marie decided to make Perth their home.
Each year, though, they kept in touch with the friends they’d made in Wittenoom. They loved catching up with them at the annual reunion picnics.
But Robert started noticing that some friends weren’t turning up. They were too ill, he was told.  A mystery lung disease.
Robert, now a cab driver, started asking questions.
He learned that the friends were dying, leaving behind their young families, because they had  respiratory diseases called Mesothelioma and Asbestosis.
Caused by exposure to asbestos, doctors were telling them.
Surely their bosses up in Wittenoom must have known what they were exposing their workers to, Robert wondered.
He started doing a lot of research, talking to doctors. There had first been reports about the dangers of asbestos decades earlier, he learned. Wouldn’t the company execs have seen such reports?
Where was the support for his dying friends? Something had to be done.
And so in 1979, the Asbestos Diseases Society was formed.
A small office in Perth’s north was set up. Here Robert, with the help of Rose Marie and others, would comfort and support people who walked in the door, worried about why their chest hurt and they couldn’t breathe properly.
Yes, they’d worked at Wittenoom too. The asbestos dust was everywhere up there – kids played in it – and no, nobody had told them about any dangers.
What could be done? Robert and Rose Marie would sit them down with a cup of tea, listen to their stories, give them names of medical experts, and work out a strategy for what lay ahead.
Robert needed to get the word out, let the community know what was going on! He found a ready ear in gun reporter George Williams at the Daily News, who did a series of features. Other journalists started writing articles too.
Gradually, West Australians started showing an interest.
As I mentioned, it was 1988 before the first court win occurred in WA. A day of enormous celebration for the Asbestos Diseases Society, and for Slater and Gordon, which has gone on to represent countless others unfairly exposed to asbestos.
Like many reporters, I interviewed Robert from time to time, and met some of the people he was helping; people with families and mortgages and kids and worries, also grappling with the fact that doctors had just told them they were soon to die.
A humble, gentle man with kind, twinkling eyes and a warm personality, Robert also had a fierce intellect and drive to help others and expose wrongs.
He and Rose Marie have devoted their lives to caring for people who’ve been exposed to asbestos. Their devotion to helping so many people meant less spare time with their daughters, Simone and Melita, but their girls understood, and share their same concerns. Melita is now the CEO of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia.
The word hero is often applied to boofheads in footy shorts who’ve kicked a few goals.
But to me, and anyone who’s met him, Robert Vojakovic is a genuine Western Australian hero.
With his enormous heart and fine brain, he changed our understanding of asbestos’s potential dangers, leading to better laws to protect us all.
RIP Robert Vojakovic, and deepest sympathy to your loved ones.
(The phasing out of asbestos began in Australia in the 80s and its sale and import was banned here in 2003. But asbestos is still being manufactured overseas, where laws are laxer. Companies like James Hardie, no longer able to manufacture asbestos in Australia, have now set up shop in Indonesia.)

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