Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Echoes of Northern New South Wales' past and a timely reminder of its present potential to resist bad government policy

The Echo, on 7 October 2021, reminding the Northern Rivers region from Clarence Valley right up to Tweed on the New South Wales-Queensland border that our combined voices followed up with action are powerful:

Ian Cohen surfing the nose of
a nuclear armed warship
Photo: 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. 

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. 

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 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 labelled 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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