Representing Festival Interests: An Interview With the Australian Festival Association

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Safety at music festivals is an issue that’s been of utmost concern recently. Indeed, over the last four months of the current festival season, five young Australians have died at events due to suspected drug overdoses.

In response to the initial two deaths at Sydney’s Defqon.1 festival in mid-September, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian tasked an expert panel to investigate how to improve safety at events like music festivals.

The panel’s final report made seven key recommendations, one of which was that a new festival industry specific liquor licensing system be introduced that would be linked to a safety management plan. The new licencing application process is set to come into play in March.

Another festival safety panel recommendation was that best practice guidelines on harm reduction at festivals be developed to provide event organisers with a consistent approach to safety at events. And NSW Health released some interim festival harm reduction guidelines last month.

The interim guidelines include the presence of peer educators at events to provide drug and alcohol harm reduction messages, the provision of chill out spaces for patrons who need some respite, and the training of non-medical staff on how to identify at-risk attendees.

An evidence-based approach

However, harm reduction experts such as Dr Alex Wodak and Dr David Caldicott have long been calling on Australian governments to implement pill testing trials at festivals as a proven method of reducing drug-related harms at these events.

Following a death at a Central Coast festival last weekend, NSW Labor leader Michael Daley said his party would convene a drug summit to consider pill testing if elected to power next March. And the NSW premier has now said she’d consider the strategy if she was shown evidence that it works.

The evidence from the first Australian government-sanctioned pill testing trial held at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival last April showed that two punters threw away their drugs after test results showed that they contained a potentially lethal substance.

And pill testing services have been utilised in certain European countries since the 1990s. Pill testing best practice guidelines that were funded by the European Union point out that these services have helped reduce drug-related accidents and have increased government responses to lethal drugs.

An industry peak body

The Australian Festival Association (AFA) announced its inception last month. It has the aim of representing the shared interests of the industry, providing a framework to ensure safety at events and acting as an intermediary between promoters and regulatory bodies.

And the AFA founding board members are some of the cream of the crop of the Australian music festival industry.

There’s Jessica Ducrou (Splendour in the Grass, Falls Festival, Download), Matthew Lazarus-Hall (CMC Rocks Queensland), Rod Little (Groovin The Moo, The Plot), Adelle Robinson (Listen Out, Listen In, Field Day, Harbourlife, Curve), as well as Danny Rogers (St Jerome’s Laneway Festival).

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to the AFA board members collectively about the role the industry group will play, the new industry specific licensing system and how it sees the music festival climate will develop moving into the future.

Firstly, the festival industry has been operating for many years without a peak body. What is it about the present climate that makes the establishment of the AFA a pertinent move?

There have been previous attempts to set up a festival industry peak body, but unfortunately, they didn’t come to fruition. It’s long overdue and in fact our initial discussions started before the recent events at Sydney’s Defqon.1.

It has since become apparent festivals organisers need to engage more deeply with authorities, to share their industry knowledge and experience. Patrons attending festivals of all genres should feel they are safe and free to enjoy their experience.

​Current negative media and political attention around festival operations threatens the industry’s ability to thrive.

The board also feels the industry has matured finding itself in an environment conducive to positive collaboration.

The AFA aims to embrace this timing to provide a united voice and a seat at the table when the Australian festival industry is being discussed.

The AFA has stated it will work as an intermediary between festival organisers and regulatory bodies. So practically speaking, what do you see the AFA’s role entailing?

We see the AFA’s role will include using positive media strategies to ensure the message reaching the public is more accurately reflective of the industry.

We will also aim to create festival best practice guidelines with regulatory bodies and share existing guidelines with festival organisers to ensure the overall industry standards are raised.

The AFA aims to work with its members and regulatory bodies to evolve its role to reflect the needs of the industry.

Pill testing is on the minds of many at the moment. What is the position of the AFA in regard to pill testing?

The AFA supports any legislation that puts the safety of patrons at Australian festivals first.

But, pill testing is just one amongst a variety of harm reduction methods that can be applied at festivals.

What sort of harm reduction measures are promoters implementing at present? And will the AFA have a focus on further developing harm reduction strategies at events?

​​The Interim Guidelines for Music Festival Event Organisers relating to music festival harm reduction have been welcomed by the AFA as a start to creating a comprehensive guide to harm reduction.

Many strategies identified in these guidelines were already in place across some Australian festivals. And the AFA believes the adoption of such strategies is vital to the safety of patrons.

One of the recommendations of the Berejiklian government’s music festival safety panel was that a festival specific liquor license be introduced. This looks set to be implemented in March.

What does this new licensing scheme involve? And in your understanding how will it affect those in the industry operating in NSW?

The AFA has a general understanding of changes that include, but are not limited to, earlier applications to Liquor and Gaming – 90 days instead of the current 28 – that promoters will have to become the licensees, whereas currently it can be a bar operator or any company that can provide an approved manager to be the license contact, and there will be a more rigorous risk assessment as part of the application.

We will wait to find out more about the scheme before commenting on how we think it will impact the industry.

Over recent months, there have been reports regarding the over-policing of events. What’s the position of the AFA on the increased police presence at music festivals? ​

The AFA supports police operations that are aimed at ensuring the safety of patrons at Australian festivals, but we would welcome a more consistent and structured approach.

And lastly, after police effectively made it impossible for the Bohemian Beatfreaks festival to operate in NSW, as well as the saturation policing reports, concerns have been raised around whether the music festival industry is under threat from the authorities.

How does the AFA see the current situation panning out?

Certainly, the Interim Guidelines add a new level of compliance that will give authorities more control over a festival’s future. It’s obviously early days, but we will watch how the stakeholders engage on a case-by-case basis.

The AFA agrees the current climate is unstable, however we have already seen through launching the association that there is a positive and united energy within the industry to engage in a positive dialogue to achieve the best possible outcome.

Eligible festivals and industry professionals can find out about AFA membership here.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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