By Ugur Nedim and Zeb Holmes
Despite a spate of drug-related deaths at music festivals in Sydney and other parts of New South Wales, the state government remains staunchly opposed to introducing harm reduction measures such as pill testing which have proven remarkably successful in several European countries – to the point where they are now part of the European Community’s best practice guidelines.
Instead, Premier Berejiklian’s solution appear to be pricing and regulating the events out of existence.
Organisers of the cancelled Psyfari music festival posted on their website that the Berejiklian government has “shown no mercy in wiping these events out in order to make a political point”. The festival was set to celebrate its tenth anniversary this year, but could not meet the additional $200,000 required of them at the last minute for additional ‘user pays policing’ fees.
Police are currently charging $127.80 per hour, per officer to ‘service’ festivals and demanding to have large numbers of officers attend – numbers that are unnecessary in the eyes of many.
The Bohemian Beatfreaks festival was similarly hit with a last minute $200,000 policing bill, after previously being quote $16,000 for the 3,000 person event.
And the Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival was forced to relocate across the border to Queensland after being priced beyond viability.
The Director of Byron Bay’s iconic Bluesfest is also foreshadowing a move out of NSW due to exorbitant compliance costs, potentially ending a 30 year tradition.
Yet another victim
Mountain Sounds is a music festival held annually in the Central Coast of NSW since 2014.
It was scheduled to be held this weekend but had to be cancelled due to the “impossible” restrictions and costs imposed by the state government, including (you guessed it) $200,000 in user pays policing costs levied just a week before the event.
“The combination of excessive costs, additional licensing conditions and the enforcement of a stricter timeline left us no option but to cancel the event,” event management advised.
Organisers had already agreed to downsize their site and cancel more than 20 acts to ensure compliance with newly-imposed safety, licensing and security costs.
The final straw was being advised they would need to pay for the constant presence of 45 police officers, despite being advised on 18 January 2019 that they would only need to pay for 11.
Pay up, or ship out
NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge has been a vocal critic of the government’s war on music festivals.
“I’ve had a number of festival organisers speak to me about the way in which the NSW police are increasing putting these exorbitant charges on,” he advised. “They’ve described it as effectively a shakedown by the police demanding obscene amounts of money.”
He explained that in recent years, Local Area Commanders have been treating the user pays policing services as a “cash cow”, and that the Berejiklian government’s festival safety review is now being used “as a means of shutting down music festivals they don’t like”.
Premier Berejiklian has publicly stated that “I don’t think it’s fair for organisers to blame anybody but themselves.”
“There are rules in place,” she remarked. “The festival organisers just have to obey the law. It’s not just about making a quick dollar, it’s also about keeping the people who turn up safe.”
The Premier failed to make mention of the unrealistically short notice given to festival organisers.
Interestingly, Berejiklian seemed to change her tune when it came to Bluesfest, saying she was hopeful the rules would not disrupt the iconic event.
“That festival has been going for 29 years, it’s a fantastic festival, it’s low risk so they don’t have anything to worry about,” she remarked. “I don’t want anyone who’s holding a festival for a long time to be worried, this is not aimed at you.”
Predictably, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant put the blame for cancellations squarely on festival organisers, calling their logistics “inadequate and incomplete.” This is despite the fact many of the festivals ran perfectly well for many years prior.
Mr Grant went so far as to claim organisers of Mountain Sounds failed to respond to police requests for information. Event management has strenuously denied the claim, stating “Mountain Sounds has never in its six years of operating not responded to the police,” they said.
Those who disagree with the way festivals are being treated point out that part of government’s role is to promote social and cultural events, and that the unrealistic costs and demands placed upon festival organisers are contributing to the state’s regression into the nation’s social wasteland.