opinion Opinion October 21, 2019

Hang on, did the NSW festival laws actually just get worse? [op-ed]

Hang on, did the NSW festival laws actually just get worse? [op-ed]

The relief that NSW music festival promoters felt when controversial licensing laws were finally overturned has proven to be extremely short-lived.

Although the draconian regulations introduced in March were scrapped in parliament late last month, the new Music Festivals Bill 2019 looks to have the same suffocating impact, with newly added threats thrown in for good measure.

All festivals that were deemed to be ‘high risk’ must still draw up a safety management plan, which still needs to be approved by the Liquor and Gaming Authority.

This effectively means that the same provisos that were recently scrapped can still be insisted upon, with the added penalty of a 12-month jail sentence for those who fail to comply. 

So things actually got a little stricter for festival promoters in NSW. Gladys Berejikilian isn’t pretending otherwise, either.

“Labor, the Greens and the Shooters took away these regulations and left nothing in their place. This legislation will rectify that,” she said of the new bill.

“The situation is clear – identified as high risk under the former licensing system will continue to be high risk under this law. These laws provide absolute certainty for the festival industry.

“They impose the same requirements on high-risk music festivals that were in place under the regulations that were disallowed by Labor, the Greens and the Shooters.”

Not surprisingly, the Australian music industry isn’t happy.

issued an open letter to the NSW Premier, explaining the new “unworkable” bill “appears to be based on the regulations disallowed by the NSW Upper House” and causes “huge uncertainty for all music festival operators and concert promoters in the lead up to the summer touring season.” 

Berejiklian is unlikely to address the letter. After Labor, the Greens and the Shooters voted to turn over the legislation on September 26, she told the Daily Telegraph that thousands of lives were at risk as we approached the summer festival season.

“We absolutely do not want to see a repeat of what happened last summer,” she warned.

So, what did happen last summer?

In short: Five people died at four different events over a six-month period. In addition, there were dozens of drug arrests across the board.

The panic started last September when 23-year-old Joseph Pham and 21-year-old Diana Nguyen both died of MDMA overdoses at dance festival Defqon.1. A later inquest heard that at least one of these lives could have been saved if not for “disorganised, delayed and incomplete” medical treatment on-site.

69 patrons at Defqon.1 were found with drugs, including a guy caught with 300 MDMA pills. The event attracted over 30,000 punters, but only 20 members of the police were on-site. 

This would be the last time police presence would be so low at a NSW music festival.

Berejikilian didn’t mince words, vowing, “We will do everything we can to shut this down, I don’t want to see this event happen again.”

She would soon get her way.

By October, the Government had tasked a panel to come up with recommendations, the most damaging of which was a new category of liquor licence for festivals deemed to be at ‘high risk’. 

Hastily-assembled regulations were rushed through parliament, and promoters were left in limbo as they waited to see just how much events already running on tight margins would be crippled. 

Festivals would have to pay for bolstered police presence, with roughly one cop for every 60 festival-goers required. These figures were based on attendance numbers from the previous year’s event.

Many other new hoops needed to be quickly leapt through in order to get the new licence, adding last-minute stress and immense financial pressure to festivals that were many months in the making.

Initially, the Berejiklian Government announced the licensing scheme would apply to all music festivals in the state. It was quickly discovered that the points system used to calculate the new classifications meant that a number of festivals they hadn’t intended to target were now deemed an “extreme risk.” 

Bluesfest, the five-day festival that draws over 50,000 people to Byron Bay each year, was one of those that accidentally fell into the Government’s high-risk category.

Promoter Peter Noble threatened to move what he dubbed “Australia’s most highly-awarded festival both nationally and internationally” to Queensland if the new rules were enforced.

“This will cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with a policy where we and every other event in this state have had zero opportunity to have any consultation or input,” he said.

Queensland Tourism Minister Kate Jones gleefully welcomed Noble’s relocation plans, naming a possible site (Woodford) and cheekily adding, “we have a long history of poaching some of NSW’s best events.”

Berejiklian quickly backpedalled, referring to Bluesfest as a “fantastic festival”, explaining, “it’s low risk so they don’t have anything to worry about, and I want to make that clear.” 

It was made clear. Bluesfest wasn’t in the crosshairs.

“This is aimed at those people at high-risk festivals that in the past haven’t done the right thing,” Berejiklian added.

Image: Bluesfest boss Peter Noble

Despite sounding like a LAN party, Knockout Games of Destiny was actually an electronic dance festival held last December at Olympic Park. During the event, 19-year-old Callum Brosnan was found passed out at the nearby train station and died in hospital the following morning, one of 15 hospitalisations linked to the 18,000-strong event. 

Knockout Games of Destiny soon became targeted as one of Berejiklian’s ‘high risk’ festivals. 

Although it was held some months before the regulations were to be enforced, Olympic Park was swamped with 130 police and 140 security guards. That’s one official for every 67 people. South West Metropolitan Region commander assistant commissioner Peter Thurtell admitted the difficulty of their task. “Obviously, people who are determined to get their drugs in one way or another, will find a way.”

This was also the festival where an 18-year-old nursing student was found with 394 MDMA capsules, a situation that gained widespread media coverage and sparked further drug panic.

New law reforms put in place recently meant that anyone supplying a substance that resulted in a death faced a 25-year sentence. With no link to Brosnan’s death, the nursing student received 80 hours of community service.

Callum Brosnan’s grieving grandmother told 9 NEWS that party drugs are “worse than terrorists.

NSW Festival Deaths

Image: Callum Brosnan’s grandmother Bev Munnik / 9News

A fourth life was lost over the NYE break at Lost Paradise in Glenworth Valley. Paramedics were told that 22-year-old Joshua Tam had “taken five to six MDMA pills and consumed a litre of vodka” when he was found lying in long grass. An inquest heard it was only a single ‘rock’ of MDMA and the initial information wasn’t to be trusted. Regardless, the single doctor that was working at the festival told the court he simply wasn’t “equipped” to treat overdoses. 

Acting Superintendent Rod Peet insisted that planning for the 11,000-strong event was “extensive” but bemoaned the “calculated” methods used to smuggle in drugs, such as modified Vegemite jars and even barbecue chickens (the secret’s in the stuffing). 50 people were issued possession notices while three were charged with supply offences, including one 23-year-old man found with 80 MDMA pills and 65 bags of cocaine.

The final death of the festival season came a fortnight later, when nineteen-year-old Alex Ross-King died after collapsing at FOMO in Parramatta Park, a festival that attracted 11,000 people and saw 36 drugs arrests.

In February, the Government’s list of high-risk festivals was finally released, giving some unlucky organisers mere weeks to scramble to get the new licence. 

Liquor and Gaming paperwork explains: “Festivals required to operate under the new licensing regime will be festivals where a serious drug-related illness or death has occurred in the past three years or where […] there may be a significant risk of serious drug-related illness or death…”

14 festivals across the state were deemed to be high risk.

Dance festivals were the hardest hit, making up 10 of the 14: Transmission, Defqon.1, Subsonic, Newcastle’s Up Down, FOMO, Electric Gardens, Ultra, HTID, Days Like This and Knockout Games Of Destiny. 

The others were hip hop festival Rolling Loud, Laneway, Newcastle’s This That, and Lost Paradise in Glenworth Valley. 

Despite the guidelines, there were some baffling inclusions. Newcastle’s Up Down, which was to take place in less than a month, was included on the list, despite never having operated before. 

Laneway Sydney was also deemed a ‘high risk’ festival, despite only two hospitalisations over a 14-year run.  

It goes without saying Laneway organiser Danny Rogers was angered.

“There was no consultation, no reason given. It was just simply you’re on a list of high-risk festivals in NSW,” Rogers told Zan Rowe.

Days Like This was held in early March, and as such was the first festival to be subject to the ‘high risk’ licensing measures.

100 police officers were out in force for a festival that attracted only 6,000 people. 35 of these were drug operations police. There were members of the riot squad present, and even 25 undercover cops, who, by the way, you can always tell by their shoes. There were also 81 security guards. Nine days after the legislation had come into effect, the police presence was swift, frightening and thoroughly unnecessary.

For comparison’s sake, the police/punter ratio required at a music festival held in Victoria and QLD is 1:1000, meaning that six cops would have done the job nicely.

Days Like This had zero hospitalisations. Now, you could either view this as a sign that the crackdowns were effective, or you could consider that the event had only ever had one hospitalisation in its three-year history. It was an early sign that this was a massive overreaction. It hurt organisers too: attendance was down 50% on the 2018 festival.

Incensed, Day Like This promoters hit out at the Government. “The number of patrons in attendance did not warrant the heavy police presence, which was found to be intimidating and, in some cases harassing,” they wrote. They then started a crowdfunding campaign with a plan to launch legal proceedings against the

The draconian legislation soon killed three major dance festivals. 

In May, a pill testing tent at Canberra’s Groovin The Moo was proven to actually save lives, findings dismissed by Berejikilian as lacking in evidence. 

That same month, Defqon.1 – the festival Berejikilian vowed to shut down – pulled the plug “indefinitely”

Having lost their nine-year residency at the Sydney International Regatta Centre after the deaths last September, Defqon.1 promoters couldn’t find a willing venue to house the now ‘high risk’ operation. Organisers bluntly pointed out how Defqon.1 manages to be successfully staged in 15 countries around the world.

‘High risk’ dance festivals HTID and Knockout Games Of Destiny, both ran by event planners Harder Styles United, have not returned in 2019.

Newcastle’s ‘This That’ festival on November 9, and Subsonic, a three-day camping festival at Barrington Tops early December, will be the first two ‘high risk’ test cases of the Music Festival Bill this season. 

Listen Out, which was recently held at Centennial Park on October 5, somehow managed to escape ‘high risk’ classification despite 159 drug charges and 12 drug-related hospitalisations at the 2018 event

This year, 9 people were hospitalised, with six of these “likely” to have been drug-related. Only three were classed as “urgent admissions.” 

Over 40,000 people attended this year, and despite Listen Out dodging the ‘high risk’ category, they were still forced to shell out $171,927 to pay for a stifling police presence. 

In New South Wales, even if a music festival isn’t classified as a high risk, it is still treated as such.

In the wake of last summer’s deaths, NSW Health sought to understand the specific circumstances behind such festival overdoses. They interviewed a number of people who had overdosed at festivals that same summer, but lived. 

At the inquest into the festival deaths, the court heard that those others who overdosed “were driven by fear of police, including taking drugs prior to arrival at the event and avoiding the medical centre.”

On top of scaring away potential sponsors, long-standing venues and ticket-buyers away, forcing festivals to shut indefinitely, and costing promoters hundreds of thousands in extras, it seems that these festival laws are actually adding to the drug toll. Maybe they also save lives. Maybe. That hasn’t been proven. 

If we do manage to survive this summer without a single drug death at , it won’t be because of the threatening wall of blue uniforms curtaining every single entrance. It won’t be because of any expensive ‘safety management plan’ filed in haste and rejected arbitrarily. It will be sheer luck, and it will happen despite the Music Festivals Bill 2019, not because of it. 

Related articles