(IMAGE: AAP/DAVE HUNT)

Last week two music festivals in NSW shut their doors, the latest casualties of new drug policing measures by the Liberal government.

Mountain Sounds and Psyfari, which had run for six and 10 years respectively, were cancelled over concerns about surging security costs, and claims of government meddling. Organisers argue this is further evidence of Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s disdain for young Australians.

The policing costs

At the heart of the Mountain Sounds’ cancellation was a request by police, just one week before the event, that the organisers shell out $200,000 worth of additional security.

“The combination of excessive costs, additional licensing and the enforcement of a stricter timeline left us no option but to cancel the event”, a statement from the festival organisers said.

Both local police and the NSW government contest the organisers’ narrative, claiming that the organisers had mismanaged the event, and failed to provide key documents and information until the last minute. Still, just before the festival was cancelled, local police told media that they “were not expecting any major drug problems at the festival”.

Regardless of who is in the right, the closure of Mountain Sounds points to a real problem with the “user pays” policing approach employed at music festivals. Under the current system, local police determine costs of providing security at the event, which are then carried by the organisers. While the system has been in place for over 10 years, there is no clear matrix for how costs are determined. Instead, they can be arbitrary, and fluctuate according to the whims of the Local Area Command, some of which are far more accommodating than others.

While there has been no actual policy change, the recent spate of cancellations and rising bills, indicate that police may be responding to the hysteria surrounding drug deaths by demanding higher security fees. NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge believes that police are using the government’s zero-tolerance approach to drugs to gouge festival organisers.

“[Festival organisers have] often privately said that they feel like they get a shakedown from the NSW police”, Shoebridge told Crikey.

According to Shoebridge, police have previously quoted “extraordinary and inflated” estimates, and then organisers have negotiated these down to a more reasonable figure.

“In the last six months, there’s been no negotiation by police, and they’re sticking to grossly inflated costs, with enormous proposed police presence. That’s making festivals economically non-viable and driving them out of the state”.

Mountain Sounds and Psyfari aren’t the only festivals to be priced out of their current existence. Good Things Festival stopped under 18s attending, a result of “exorbitant” fees for excessive police presence. Bohemian Beatfreaks, held in NSW Northern Rivers region, was asked for $200,000 by police late last year, a dramatic escalation from the $10,000 they paid in 2017. Despite winning a last minute court battle over whether it could even go ahead, the festival eventually moved across the border to Queensland.

In an interview, director Erik Lamir-Price said he believed the arbitrary increase was part of a politically-motivated move toward over-policing driven by the war on drugs.

“The list of ‘safety issues’ they’ve been rattling off are so minor, insignificant and non-existent that none of them would warrant shutting an event down. So there’s got to be some other motive there,” Lamir-Price said.

The new guidelines

The NSW government’s regulatory framework will likely only create further uncertainty for the festival industry. Desperate to appear responsive to a spate of high-profile MDMA overdoses, the Berejiklian government introduced a set of interim guidelines for music festivals, with the final version set to be released on March 1.

The interim guidelines use a risk matrix to draw a distinction between low and high risk festivals, with the latter category facing additional costs and regulation. But the guidelines are already causing considerable uncertainty. This week, the director of Byron Bay Bluesfest Peter Noble claimed his festival would be designated high risk under the regulations, and that he was considering moving the event interstate to avoid skyrocketing costs.

Keen to keep a major tourist event, Glady Berejiklian insisted Bluesfest would not be designated high risk. But Noble’s statement points to a real problem with the interim regulations, under which even opera could be designated high risk.

It’s unclear whether the final guidelines will alleviate organisers’ concerns. Two weeks ahead of their release, Music NSW says there’s been a lack of consultation with the industry, and many in the business fear that most festivals will end up getting high risk status. Shoebridge believes this will see them “smashed by seemingly unending bills for police and emergency services, which will almost inevitably drive them out of business”.

We do know, thanks to leaked documents, that the final guidelines will give the government far greater control over festivals. Where previously the Office of Liquor and Gaming only approved an event’s liquor licence, it will now have control over how the entire festival is managed.

The implementation of the guidelines has also been incredibly rushed. March 1 marks the beginning of the caretaker period before NSW goes to the polls, and during this time, convention dictates that no new legislation or regulation is published during this time. This means the guidelines will likely be signed off on in their current form right before the start of this period, leaving little time to respond to numerous concerns voiced by the industry.

Welcome to the nanny state?

The spate of festival closures are just another part of the cultural wasteland that is post-lockout NSW. Just as many iconic clubs and bars were killed off by the lockouts, the Berejiklian government’s moral panic over MDMA overdoses (which, as Crikey recently reported, make up a fraction of drug deaths in Australia) looks to be doing the same to music festivals.

According to Shoebridge, the closures are symbolic of Berejiklian’s “war against young people, all dressed up as a war on drugs”.

“This is the nanny-state, but unfortunately nanny is extremely well-armed and has a bunch of police dogs with her”.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW