The NSW Police Force (NSWPF) is intensifying its already full throttle assault on music festivals. Not only does it want to saturate events with officers and turn away punters even though they are not in possession of illegal drugs, but it now wants the power to terminate festivals no questions asked.
Despite the NSW Land and Environment Court ruling in November that the northern NSW Bohemian Beatfreaks festival could go ahead after police tried to shut it down on safety grounds, the NSWPF were able to push it into Queensland due to the exorbitant fees it was charging to police the event.
Event organiser Rabbits Eat Lettuce has run five successful and incident-free events at the NSW Kippenduff site since it received development approval from Richmond Valley Council in 2015. But, in late October, local police announced they wanted to close down its upcoming festival.
Once organisers launched a legal action against the shutdown, NSW police hit them with a close to $200,000 user pays policing quote, after they’d received an initial quote for $16,000. The new quote meant the usual two to four officers would be increased to 56 for a 3,000 person capacity festival.
The court cut the quote to $105,000, which still led Rabbits Eat Lettuce to move north of the border. However, this wasn’t enough for the NSWPF. It’s now filed a notice of intention to appeal with the NSW Supreme Court claiming that the organisers had no right to challenge the police shutdown.
The final nail
“They’re appealing that we had any right to appeal in the first place. They’re trying to say that Justice Moore got the law wrong,” Rabbits Eat Lettuce director Erik Lamir-Pike said, adding that the NSWPF is claiming there were no legal grounds to appeal its assessment of the festival as unsafe.
The effect that a ruling in favour of the NSW police appeal would have is that Mr Lamir-Pike’s organisation could no longer challenge a future decision by the NSWPF to withdraw its support and shut down an event at the Kippenduff site on safety grounds.
Clause seven of the development approval Rabbits Eat Lettuce has with the local council states that if emergency services deem an event unsafe then it cannot go ahead. This is the clause that NSW police invoked back in October in its attempt to close down Bohemian Beatfreaks.
A devastating precedent
“If the police press on with this appeal and it succeeds, it will send a shiver down the spine of every festival organiser in NSW, because it will mean that whatever the police say is law,” NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.
The implications being that if the court rules that Rabbits Eat Lettuce had no right to challenge the police shutdown, then a precedent has been set for police to shut down other festivals citing safety grounds without fear of any legal reprisal.
“It would be the death of the music festival industry if the police have an unappealable right to shut down events on spurious safety grounds,” the NSW Greens justice spokesperson stressed. “If that is the law, then it’s a disgrace.”
Debilitating safety measures
Mr Lamir-Pike asserts there’s no rhyme or reason to how NSW police is responding to music festivals at present. He explained that when the court approved his appeal of the shutdown in November, it came with a number of “ludicrous” conditions that would have “made the event more dangerous”.
The court ordered that organisers erect two metre high chain link fencing around the perimeter of the event’s entertainment area. As Mr Lamir-Pike points out, while police cited fire concerns, this fencing proposal would lead to punters being stuck inside an enclosed area if one broke out.
“They’re contradicting themselves every step of the way and it proves that they don’t really have any concerns for the safety of our guests,” Lamir-Pike made clear, “they’re just pushing their agenda to shut down an event.”
Doubling down on the harms
At the time NSW police initially announced it was going to try and shut down the Bohemian Beatfreaks festival in October, officers stated it was partly due to the drug-related deaths of two young Australians at Sydney’s Defqon.1 festival in September.
Although there have been no drug or alcohol-related ambulance transfers from any of the festivals Rabbits Eat Lettuce has put on at the Kippenduff site. Indeed, the events the organisers have put on have a clean record.
In response to the Defqon.1 tragedy, the Berejiklian government established a music festival safety panel, which was ordered not to consider life-saving pill testing trials, and eventually reported back with a number of business-as-usual tough on drug measures.
“They’re just doing that knee-jerk reaction thinking they can still win the war on drugs,” Lamir-Pike went on. And he questioned the sanity of a government that continues to try to get a positive result from the same punitive drug laws that have been repeatedly wreaking havoc in the community.
An evidence-based approach
And tragedy has already struck again. Last Saturday night, 19-year-old Callum Brosnan died of a suspected overdose at a Sydney Olympic Park festival. If there was a pill testing service that he could have accessed at the event, then potentially he could still be alive.
A successful pill testing trial was held at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival last April. Samples from two of the 128 punters that had their pills tested were found to contain a potentially lethal substance. The owners tossed out their drugs, so their lives were likely saved by the service.
NSW police minister Troy Grant has persistently blocked any consideration of this life-saving initiative. But, with a likely change of government next March, perhaps it will be more prone to trial these services. It’s just a shame how many more youths might die in the meantime.
Out of touch authority figures
But, as far as Shoebridge is concerned, this current crackdown on festivals is only partially drug-related. “Some of this is done under the cover of their failing war on drugs,” the Greens MLC explained. “But, it goes beyond that.”
The majority of middle-aged parliamentarians “are conducting a war on young people”, he explained. These are politicians who can no longer remember that it’s natural for young people to challenge the boundaries, and nor do they understand the joys of attending music festivals.
“This is the current expression of an ongoing generational battle,” Mr Shoebridge concluded. “And what they want is an unregulated, unappealable truncheon with which to beat up music festivals.”
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.