Just as it is as difficult for a rich man to enter heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, so it is apparently nigh impossible for the NSW government to draft a public health order which doesn’t exempt Hillsong from having to behave like everyone else.
NSW Police confirmed on Friday that it would not be issuing a fine to Hillsong for breaching the current public health order prohibition on singing and dancing in certain contexts, despite the government having stated that it was “clearly in breach”.
Judging from the video footage Hillsong had been promoting on social media, a very large number of unmasked young people had been doing a pretty good impression of a mosh pit, presumably apart from the drugs and sexy time antics.
Premier Dominic Perrottet had been “completely shocked” by what he saw, and Health Minister Brad Hazzard was explicit: “While the order does not apply to religious services, it does apply to major recreation facilities and this event is clearly in breach of the spirit and intent of the order.”
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There’s the first clue: the spirit and intent of the law. Not its letter. So what’s the truth here? Did Hillsong break the law or not? The answer is, unequivocally, no.
Let’s go to the law. The public health order, in its latest form, makes two specific provisions for “singing and dancing”. In combination, they require occupiers of premises of these types to ensure that nobody (apart from performers) sings or dances there:
- Hospitality venues (including pubs, clubs and restaurants)
- Entertainment facilities (including theatres, concert halls)
- Major recreation facilities
- Music festival locations.
The last two are relevant to Hillsong. A “major recreation facility” is defined in the order as “a building or place used for large-scale sporting or recreation activities that are attended by large numbers of people whether regularly or periodically, and includes theme parks, sports stadiums, racecourses and motor racing tracks”.
The Hillsong Wildlife Summercamp was held at the Glenrock Scout Camp in Newcastle. Much as NSW Health would like to insist that it validly “deemed the location to be a major recreation facility”, it has no such deeming power and a scout camp is very clearly well outside the definition.
But was the Hillsong jamboree a “music festival”? Well, that is defined as an event that is “music-focused or dance-focused”, which Hillsong would justifiably assert its Summercamp was not. While it may be that the kids spent all three days and nights singing and dancing their faith away, Hillsong would say that that wasn’t the “focus”, and who’s to second-guess it?
An attempted prosecution would have failed, which is why the police would have wasted their time trying.
As to whether any of this makes logical or moral sense, that’s another question. The prohibition on singing and dancing at music festivals was added to the public health order two days before the Hillsong festival kicked off. The entertainment industry is deeply wounded, financially and spiritually, by what it perceives as constant unfair targeting of its business by the NSW government throughout the pandemic.
All COVID-related restrictions can only be justified on the basis of protecting public health. It is impossible to find a distinction between the Hillsong event and a music festival as defined which would support a conclusion that the latter is more dangerous than the former.
That’s because it’s impossible to distinguish between Hillsong’s party and a music festival in ordinary terms; however, in the language of the public health order, the difference exists.
The real difference is a direct reflection of the priorities of the NSW government, which have been plainly on show throughout the pandemic.
It considers the freedom of activity for religious organisations to be a high priority, to be preserved or restored as early as possible whenever public health has required its temporary impingement. It has no regard for the entertainment industry whatsoever, nor for the public health benefits of allowing young people to do as they’re naturally inclined.
The government isn’t necessarily wrong about this, but it should be transparently prepared to argue its case. The fact is that Hillsong did what the law allows it to do, and the government should not be pretending otherwise. If it has decided that the law is wrong, then own up and change the law.
We’re all sick to death of being lied to.
Does this infuriate you? Should the law the changed? Let us know your thoughts by writing to email@example.com. Please include your full name if you would like to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.