(Private Members' Statements, 9 May 2019, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
Music festivals are vital to the state’s cultural life, providing opportunities to see live music, socialise and dance. Last year over 3.2 million people attended a live music event in New South Wales and the industry is worth $600 million to the state. While live music in clubs and pubs has suffered from mass venue closures and reduced performance times due to the lockout and other laws, music festivals have thrived and became an important part of contemporary and youth culture.
But earlier in the year festivals came under attack with the introduction of a new regulatory regime with excessive, unworkable and unclear requirements on organisers. The conditions were rushed through with no industry consultation and showed a lack of understanding of music festivals. Many believe the aim was to prevent festivals from taking place before the state election.
A number of festivals cancelled and some promoters threatened to follow suit. I heard from a large number of constituents alarmed that their favourite events will end and no new events will emerge.
While the government tried to address some of the concerns, the new regime remains problematic and I understand talks with festival organisers have stalled.
Recent deaths at music festivals associated with illegal drug use are tragic and heartbreaking and I agree that they require a government response, but overregulating and imposing massive costs on the industry will not make festivals safer. Some festivals report having to pay as much as 15 times more in user-pays police costs when we know that increasing police numbers at events contradicts harm minimisation measures and encourages a more unsafe approach to taking drugs. Drug detection operations are a particular concern because they encourage people to ingest larger doses at once or to buy from strangers at a festival, which can increase health risks.
My constituents who attend music festivals regularly report excessive, punitive and sometimes disturbing police presence at music festivals, that they say makes them feel like they have done something wrong by just being there.
This year’s Mardi Gras Parade provides a good example of how policing should be done at large events with officers taking a community approach. Instead of treating punters like criminals, initiating searches, questioning people about their drug use and surveying their every move, police presence is there to make people feel safe and provide a trustworthy person to report concerns to.
Experts consistently say that pill testing and creating an environment where drug users are not afraid to report that they feel sick are the way to improve safety at music festivals. While I welcome replacement of drug possession convictions with on-the-spot fines, people will still act to avoid detection.
The new NSW Health Guidelines for Music Festival Organisers is aimed at harm reduction and is a good start, but it was drafted without any industry input and fails to incorporate the complexities of running a festival. Festival organisers tell me that many requirements are unworkable. The number of harm minimisation officers needed at many events for example are impossible to meet with the number of teams that are available in the community. The government needs to increase funding to programs so that more officers can be trained.
The standards to help promoters employ appropriate medical providers are not useful as they are too vague and focus on skills. Quality care would be better ensured if event medical providers were accredited. This is something industry wants and I understand Victoria is pursuing accreditation.
It is not clear how festivals are being deemed high-risk and therefore subject to the highest licence conditions. There are guidelines which include the type of music at the festival but the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority has discretion in a process that lacks accountability and transparency and could be seen to be open to political manipulation.
When the licence and guidelines were released, I convened a meeting of festival promoters with Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann. It was clear that promoters want their events to be safe and accept that music festival specific regulation is appropriate, but they want rules to be fair, workable and not a deterrent to running events. The industry is keen to work with government on better outcomes. A working party is urgently needed that brings together industry, health, police and Liquor and Gaming.
The Minister for Health has agreed to meet with me and the Australian Festivals Association and I look forward to working with him and other relevant ministers towards an outcome.
With the lockout laws already stifling our late night economy, Sydney’s reputation as a cultural destination is already suffering. We cannot afford to lose our music festivals too.
I call on the government to create a new process to regulate festivals by working collaboratively with industry that protects the future viability of music festivals and ensures that they are safe and fun places for people of all ages.