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August 18, 2022

Local anti-nuclear activists who chose to make a difference…

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Ian Cohen surfing the nose of a nuclear armed warship. Photos Robert Pearce

Following the Nuclear Disarmament Party’s close loss with front man Peter Garrett in 1984, nuclear issues were at the forefront of people’s minds. We extended our influence far beyond our Shire. The pending arrival of nuclear armed warships sent the local region into overdrive. Benny Zable from Nimbin rolled out his ‘radioactive’ barrels for street theatre. Dean Jefferys based in Brunswick Heads came with his ultralight, Hoss (Ian Hoskens) of Main Arm with his megaphone voice and me with my surfboard.

Hoss, Ian Hosken. PhotoJeff Dawson

September 1986 heralded the arrival of the largest assembly of international ships in Sydney Harbour’s history. Many were nuclear armed.

Our north coast contingent was vital to the success of the protest actions. Driven by a reckless, but heartfelt, desire to impact on the nuclear arms race and send a direct message to US President Ronald Reagan and USSR’s Yuri Andropov.

Benny Zable. Photo Jeff Dawson

The mad concept of surfing the nose of a nuclear armed warship was mine, but Sydney Morning Herald photographer, Robert Pearce, from a media barge directly in front of myself and the warship, captured the image of a vulnerable surfer hanging onto the nose of a nuclear armed destroyer that went global.

Dean Jefferys at the Quicksilver Pro Surfing competition at Coolangatta in 2016. Photo supplied.

Dean backed it up with a paint bomb delivered from his ultralight. It missed, (fortunately it was water based paint). He was more accurate several days later delivering a bouquet of flowers from the air into a missile silo as the HMS Illustrious departed. Dean landed himself in jail.

Channon local, Ian Gaillard, worked with the anti-nuclear vessel Pacific Peacemaker and crewed it on the long haul through the Pacific to confront the launch of the world’s largest nuclear submarine in Seattle. They travelled through the Pacific garnering local support along the way.

During the 1980s Jim Mitsos had moved to Byron and bought up most of what is now Suffolk Park. A Communist developer, creating real affordable housing he was also a tireless anti-nuclear campaigner promoting the concept of Nuclear Free Zone signs in Byron that spread to councils throughout NSW. He laid the groundwork of awareness for follow up actions. Perhaps we need those signs again?

Ian Cohen surfing the nose of a nuclear armed warship. Photos Robert Pearce

In 1995 I was the first Green elected to NSW Parliament. With the efficient support of Byron’s future mayor, Jan Barham, I spent the first break organising an international contingent of politicians to be part of a flotilla of ships to descend on Papeete (Tahiti) and support islanders in their opposition to upcoming nuclear tests at Moruroa. We learnt much about the global phenomenon ‘Ships of Shame’ where seafarers are abused and exploited, the impossibility of chartering a flotilla, and decided to fly 30 Australian politicians over to Papeete.

Meetings under the palms with President Oscar Temaru, inspired, along with marches and forums in Papeete, the contingent of politicians including Richard Jones MLC, another Byron Shire local, who met with the French Ambassador to deliver thousands of petitions. 

Greenpeace had other ideas for a small crew. A private boat was organised to transport an international selection of politicians to Moruroa 1,150km away. In my last interview before our departure I was informed that the French had announced a $150,000 fine and 12 months in jail for anyone entering the exclusion zone.

Halfway there an international news broadcast announced the French had detonated the first bomb in the series on Moruroa. The little boat continued on course, without deviation, as we sailed into the eye of the global nuclear storm. That was the last French nuclear test in the Pacific.

Times change, but some things regarding the nuclear industry and international political posturing remain the same.

Our PM, Scott Morrison, struts the world stage, vilifies China (some of it deserved), but in the process is locking in Australia’s subservience to US foreign policy while guaranteeing increased US troop access and US spy stations on Australian territory for the future. Add to this the crippling cost of procurement of nuclear powered subs and the possible return of Donald Trump to ‘guide’ our nation into the future.

This sabre rattling at an external enemy will allow Morrison some catch up in the polls while the ALP is wedged. The huge crime here is to make a decision without debate in the Federal Parliament. An external enemy worked for Thatcher (Falklands War). In Australia we had weapons of mass destruction touted in Iraq while George W Bush labeled Howard a ‘Man of Steel’ for sending our young soldiers to war.

Whilst recognising the repressive political leadership in Bejing, there is a better road to peace through diplomacy, and when necessary, trade sanctions.

In the depth of the Cold War nuclear capable warships, either conventional or nuclear powered, did not cruise the world’s oceans unarmed and race back to San Diego or Hawaii in an emergency to load. In the 1980s their mantra was; ‘We neither confirm or deny these ships have nuclear weapons on board’. Today, nuclear weapons have been removed from surface ships. They are still on nuclear submarines. Just what arsenal will Australia obediently accept when it hires or purchases US submarines?

In 1975 there were 6,191 US nuclear weapons afloat. Arms control agreements have reduced the number of weapons deployed at sea to 1,000 in 2015.

Morrison’s recent ‘All the way with USA’ is cementing increased US control over future Australian Foreign Policy. We do not benefit from this association. In fact, we as a nation are making ourselves a target.

As for their vulnerability in port, we need to look no further than 9/11 in New York, the US heartland.


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9 COMMENTS

  1. Ian Cohen, cometh the hour cometh the man. I’ll never forget the nose surfing effort, putting it all on the line. Whenever the Conservatives are desperate for a distraction they pull the ‘National Security’ card with ‘the other’ / asylum seekers or defence, the go to. We still waiting, since year 2000, for AUKUS to show us those weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq. Now AUKUS at it again with, ‘the yellow peril’. It must that time again in Australia, a federal election anyone?

  2. Thanks Ian (Cohen) for all your valiant & brave consistent efforts. I was in Greenpeace at the time & on the water in a zodiac with other outraged(mad) activists from GP. We still remember the fear we felt watching you get closer & closer to that immense nuclear war ship ‘whilst you surfed the nose’ & managed not to have a heart attack thankfully. Our hearts were in our mouths. Then the helicopters came down upon us , so low we could not have stood up even if we wanted to. Then our fear became self focused. YOU DON’T REALISE HOW BIG SYDNEY HARBOUR IS UNTIL YOU GET CONSUMED BY IT. Thanks to all the other eco heroes too who Never get a mention . SO MANY OF THESE WONDERFUL SOULS ARE IN THIS REGION, WHICH WAS ONE OF THE MAJOR REASONS FOR MOVING HERE some 4 yrs ago 🙂 Blessed are the freaks..for they are the ones that truly love this planet.

  3. Very well documented. In 1985 I wrote the poetry collection Midnight Tulips published by Cochon
    & Arts Action for Peace & Judith Wright added an ‘intro’ along with my own. Judith’s Peace Note…

    Bombs ripen on the leafless tree
    under which the children play.
    And there my darling, all alone,
    dances in the spying day.

    I gave her nerves to feel her pain,
    I put her mortal beauty on.
    I taught her love, that hate might find
    its dark work the easier done.

    I sent her out alone to play;
    and I must watch, and I must hear,
    how underneath the leafless tree
    the children dance and sing with fear.

    Judith then added …

    “I wrote this poem during the Cuban crisis, when my daughter was a few years old.
    Now many mothers must be feeling once again the misery of fear for their children.
    During the years since Hiroshima it has never been possible to escape the fear. But
    for many years we were being reassured and soothed by prosperity, by the close of
    the Cold War, and by the propaganda of militarists not yet quite ready to unloose
    Armageddon. We did little or nothing about it.

    The Peace Movement is beginning again and politicians are afraid it might even
    make a difference to people’s voting and to people’s actions. If it doesn’t do that,
    we are all lost. If it does, maybe we are lost nevertheless but at least we will have
    tried to avert for our own children and the children of the world the fate of the
    children of Hiroshima, burnt, then frozen by the nuclear night. If we go numbly
    on as we do now, we deserve our fate – but the children don’t deserve it.”

    Judith Wright 8-11-1984

    Author’s Note…

    The year 1985 seems a significant time to return to the field of poetry – particularly
    when one considers that there may be no 1986, printers, poets or people.

    In this day of push-button extinction, no-one has asked me if I want to be a statistic,
    a pawn, a victim of a power-crazed gang who sit as heads of state in the Power-capitals
    of the world. It would seem that love, laughter, or life itself, is a long forgotten incident
    to these aging ‘global heroes.’ Their lives are almost over – what have they got to lose?
    But tell me, where do the children play?

    This book is dedicated to the preservation of the small every-day wonders, and the people
    who still have eyes or souls to see. To aggressor or victim, the searcher or salvager or those
    who still believe there is time and space enough to dream and to love. Fellow artists, fellow
    humans, to all of us who stand at gunpoint, this book is for you and about you.

    Stefanie Bennett, October 1984 (ICAN)

  4. Thank you Ian Cohen for bringing back all that info.
    It’s very important that we as environmental defenders, new and elders stay focused and remember, how bad uranium is in our environment.
    My first ever march/protest was an anti nuclear rally through the street’s of Sydney 1970
    URANIUM LEAVE IT IN GROUND!!
    was our catch cry then and still is mine.
    NO NUKES!

  5. Thanks Ian for reminding us of the past, so we may better think of ways to deal with the future. Many people are unaware of the militarisation of our economy, well underway now, since the launch of the Defence Export Strategy in 2018 by then Defence Minister Pyne. Look for the Disrupt Landforces page on Facebook

  6. […] submarines and AUKUS? Morrison’s decision on AUKUS and nuclear submarines was made with no debate in Parliament. Growing pressure for Australia to scrap the plan for nuclear submarines fuelled by […]

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