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Byron Shire
April 19, 2021

Persons of interest: Ian Cohen

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Former NSW Greens MLC and activist Ian Cohen. Photo Tree Faerie.

Wendy Champagne

In the leadup to the Adani rally and convoy on April 21 (see page 1), The Echo profiles another local activist who has been influential in the field of environmental protection.

Ian Cohen is a larrikin activist and a passionate torchbearer for The Greens party. Love him or hate him, this self-named ‘radical ratbag’ has earned his place as an elder of Australia’s environmental movement.

Cohen’s activism is rooted in a love for nature and the ocean, which was ignited after Boy Scout visits to the Blue Mountains.

Despite just missing out on the legendary 1979 Terania Creek protests, Cohen arrived to the north coast soon after to make his ‘first stand’ against sand mining at Middle Head, near Macksville.

He says of the protest, ’People were really there to help and it was a fantastic feeling… the camaraderie’.

‘Every morning before the day’s action we’d all go for a surf together’.

While the protest failed at Middle Head (with a ‘military-like operation and 140 arrests’), the next mine at Grassy Head was prevented.

‘Our action virtually drove the sand mines out of the state in the 1980s,’ he says.

Cohen continued with activism in the Nightcap campaign, which was a continuation of Terania.

And then down at the Franklin River in Tassie, where he dug in as one of the main people. ‘I developed a knowledge of where to go along the river and how to guide people’, he says.

WC: You went on to sit as a Greens member of the NSW Legislative Council for nearly sixteen years. How has politics played a role in the movement?

IC: We had some significant wins. I won more forest in parliament than as an activist overall. That does not denigrate the activism – the activism has to be there for the politician to have power. It is a symbiotic relationship.

WC: How do you see yourself, as a ratbag or a consciousness-raiser or neither?

IC: Both. It’s part of my being. Everyone likes to be an artist and everyone likes to be creative. My canvas is pretty rough and ready, but it allows me to get out with ideas that are so out there that they tend to inspire people. Like doing that [1986] warship action.

WC: Jumping into Sydney Harbour on your surfboard and grabbing hold of the bow of a US nuclear warship as it entered the Harbour….

IC: That was just a completely mad idea. I lay in bed one night thinking, what can I do to stick it to everybody?

That image went the equivalent of modern-day viral. It was published in almost every newspaper in the western world and a lot of the eastern world as well; it was even published on the front page of the New York Times. That was me being a ratbag, being a radical, pushing against the system and creating a kind of theatre of the environment that got the message across like nothing else.

WC: There seems to be an escalation in the narrative these days, where environmental activists and Greens in general are being labelled ‘terrorists’.

IC: This is something the Murdoch media love to push around. Something that the Nationals and coalition push all the time. 

We had an Australian ethos that loved a larrikin. Hawke was a larrikin prime minister and I used to shake his hand and not let go, just to get in on the media run with him.

He knew what I was doing and he tolerated it, because we had such a healthy, robust democracy. 

Democracy itself is under attack right now.

The culture has changed and we are moving into a far more dangerous environment where people protesting Adani have the potential to be fined thousands of dollars just for trespassing on the site during a protest.

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  1. Too true how culture has changed. Yes – it’s dangerous, Ian. Costly
    as well. Still, with democracy a forgotten word in the land of the
    ‘reporting world of Murdoch’ we’ll continue to be the ‘outsiders’. The
    Greens & affiliates are the land & waters’ only hope – including the
    Climate Change Students & the aged.

  2. From a generation who actually put their arse on the line to protest injustice. Sadly, these days it’s mostly just signing a petition online.


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