Bill Ryan Activism Award

Bill Ryan passed away in December 2019, and is very missed. His civility, spirit, and determination were an inspiration to so many.  His long history of engaging in non-violent, direct action was centred in his conviction that civil disobedience and the freedom to protest should be an essential feature of democratic society.  A veteran of the Second World War, and the Kokoda campaign, Bill advocated for an end to the Vietnam War and took part in the anti-apartheid protests in the 1960s and 1970s.

In his later years Bill was legally blind, but continued to campaign for action on climate change, attending protests until a week before his death, at 97 years of age.  Multiple arrests did not deter him. 

“I will be gone by the time climate change is in full swing”, he said, “but I am taking action for my grandchildren, great grandchildren and all future generations.” 

This award has been established in Bill Ryan’s name as a tribute to a much loved and remarkable man and to honour those who share his spirit of non-violent direct action for the benefit of the environment. 

Awarded for: Peaceful environmental activism that inspires others to take action for a better future for the planet.

Winner of the Bill Ryan Activism Award 2022 – Dr Sharyn Cullis

We’re proud to announce the recipient of this year’s Bill Ryan Award for environmental activism is Dr Sharyn Cullis, from the Georges River Environmental Alliance. Dr Cullis passed away earlier this year, and is very much missed by all who knew her.

In June this year letters to The Leader brought a full page of tributes. 

We received many nominations supporting Dr Cullis for this year’s Award.  She shared many of the same qualities as Bill Ryan, including his love for the environment, determination, and also ​the capacity to inspire others. She has a decades long history of environmental activism.

Julie Sheppard, another renowned environmental advocate in her own right, highlighted Sharyn’s work campaigning against coal seam gas mining, and how Sharyn used to organise pop-up protest picnics against the proposed CSG gas well drilling. Sharyn took part in the huge anti-CSG walk over the Seacliff Bridge in Wollongong, and took other actions to oppose BHP’s expansion plans which would’ve undermined the entire O’Hares Creek system and hundreds of upland swamps, the lifeblood of the Georges River system.  Julie Sheppard and others also noted the importance of Sharyn’s advocacy in successfully lobbying for the creation of Dharawal National Park.

Dr Cullis was also involved in the RiverSOS group which with the took out a court case in 2009 to try to stop Peabody’s longwall coal mining operation under Woronora Reservoir.  More recently she put in brilliant submissions opposing the Dendrobium mine extension through the Georges River Environmental Alliance group which she founded.

At Heathcote Rd near at Sandy Point with members of Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society and Save Sydney’s Koalas: L to R: Peter Mahoney, Sue Gay, James Michael Deli, Sharyn Cullis, Barry Durham

Kim Wagstaff, the President of Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society noted how Sharyn’s interest in the environment had been sparked as a child when she found a turtle, which might have been blinded as a result of chemicals in a creek.   As an Oatley resident Sharyn provided strategic leadership on a wide range of local issues involving protection of iconic reserves, remnant bushland and the Georges River. He mentioned Sharyn’s involvement with the Georges RiverKeeper and their River Health Monitoring program: 

“Earlier this year the Riverkeeper formally recognised her knowledgeable contribution and longstanding commitment as an active community representative over many years, and she is now on the Riverkeeper’s Honour Board.”

In the last month we’ve been notified by Transport NSW that an underpass will be put in place at Sandy Point, under Heathcote Road.  It is a koala kill zone, and many koalas have been hit by cars in that location.

Dr Cullis played a critical role in advocating for this underpass to stop these deaths.

Sharyn wrote beautifully, and spoke in public in a compelling way, conveying complex environmental issues in a manner that was entirely accessible.  We’re proud to be able to formally recognise her important contribution.

Sharyn’s husband Phil Andersen, and his and Sharyn’s daughters, Kirsty and Tamzin, and granddaughter, Eve.

Phil Andersen, Dr Cullis’s husband said, “I would like to thank the Sutherland Environment Centre for the Award and the recognition given to Sharyn’s work and whilst Sharyn would have appreciated the Award and recognition it was not something she actively sought.

Her activism on was born of a deep love of the environment and concern over the damage we are doing to it.”

As part of the Bill Ryan Award, Philip Andersen will receive $1,000 to donate to an environmental charity of his choice.

Winner of the Bill Ryan Activism Award 2021 – Peter Donley

Peter and Liz Donley at a climate change rally in 2019

We are thrilled to announce Peter Donley as the winner for this year’s Bill Ryan award. Like Bill, Peter has demonstrated a long-standing commitment, advocating on issues related to environmental protection and social injustice, starting as far back as protests against the Vietnam War.

Peter has been a tenacious advocate for nature, participating in campaigns directed at all levels of government to address environmentally damaging laws and decisions. He’s acted to prevent a range of mining projects from large multinationals like Rio Tinto, Santos, Adani, Peabody and Shenhau, and has fought to stop PEL gas licences across NSW, Fishing Super Trawlers in marine national parks and the destruction of sacred Gomeroi sites in Leard Forest in Narrabri by mining companies.

At the end of 2011, Peter’s daughter Jenna was killed a mere week before graduating as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. His daughter’s love of wildlife and nature compelled Peter to dedicate his life to environmental activism.

He said, “I have found my efforts to save the environment to be the best way of dealing with the tragic loss of my beautiful, compassionate and talented daughter.”

Peter Donley met Bill Ryan in 2014 at a film night featuring the plight of NSW farmers confronted by coal mining on their land. From that moment on, Peter developed an admiration and respect for Bill’s dedication to the environment and also discovered a cause he could be engaged with.

I was immediately struck by Bill’s passion and commitment to the cause of preventing further destruction of the natural environment. I heard that Bill, a WW2 Kokoda Veteran who was legally blind and physically disabled to the point of requiring a walking frame to get around had been arrested several times in Non-Violent Direct-Action against Whitehaven Coal, which was illegally clearing the Leard State Forest at Maules Creek for their open cut coal mine. I realised, that if Bill could do those things with his disabilities, I should join him in the fight.

 Peter in 2016 at the Break Free from Fossil Fuel protest blockade in Newcastle. Photo credit: Darren Pateman, Newcastle Herald

The urgency for action on climate change has been at the forefront of Peter’s work for many years. He’s strategized on campaigns with many organisations including Greenpeace, Lock The Gate, the Greens, Extinction Rebellion and our local Sutherland Shire Climate Action Network.

In 2014, he was arrested for participating in a mass ‘walk-in’ to prevent illegal forest clearing of protected native habitat in the Leard Forest in Narrabri by Whitehaven Coal. In the same year, Peter met with the University of Sydney to discuss their investment in fossil fuel businesses and Whitehaven Coal specifically. When no action was taken, Peter challenged the Vice Chancellor about these investments in front of an audience of hundreds of donors at their Challis Bequest lunch.  The University subsequently halted all further coal investments and announced its intention to divest from Whitehaven Coal.

In the beginning of 2016, Peter helped plan and participated in the sit-down protest in the foyer of Parliament House Canberra calling for stronger federal government action on climate change. Later in 2016, he kayaked in front of towering coal container ships in Newcastle waters to block the export of coal in the Break Free from Fossil Fuel protest.

Peter shares Bill Ryan’s sense of social justice, and his integrity and generosity of spirit. His gentle, ethical, and modest approach to activism is an inspiration.

Inaugural winner of the Bill Ryan Activism Award 2020 – Veronica Hester

Veronica is a remarkable young woman who in 2020, had a remarkable year. Not only did she tackle her HSC during a pandemic, she actively helped to organise school strike for climate actions, working with others to organise a national climate strike on September 25, with an action outside Scott Morrison’s electoral office. The students asked the Federal government to stop handing billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money to the gas industry.

She also joined a class action to halt expansion of Whitehaven’s NSW Vickery coal mine because of the harm this mine would cause young people by exacerbating climate change.

Since Veronica won the 2020 Bill Ryan Activism Award and as a result of the original student litigants in the Sharma court case, an historic court ruling found the Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, to have a duty of care to avoid causing children harm resulting from the extraction of coal and carbon dioxide emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Read more about the class action:

Instead of accepting the court’s decision, the Environment Minister decided to initiate a costly legal appeal. Veronica has donated $500 of her prize money to and their crowd-funding campaign to assist with costs to prevent this finding from being overturned.

Veronica also gave $500 to the charity, justdiggit which works closely with farmers and others living off the land in Africa to help them implement rainwater harvesting and proven techniques to regreen dry land. Veronica says she wanted to contribute to something that has an actionable impact on carbon emissions.

Young people are facing an uncertain economic future, including job insecurity stemming from the pandemic. Climate change is only going to exacerbate the stress on our economy. I’m hopeful that Mr Morrison will use the upcoming budget to invest in long term jobs and clean energy, rather than push ahead with his plans to subsidise fossil fuels, and in particular the gas industry.

Veronica Hester


Comments are closed.