Shut It Down: Berejiklian’s Botched Festival Licensing Scheme

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Gladys Berejiklian 2019

After months of warning the industry that a festival specific licensing regime will apply for all events statewide, the killjoy Berejiklian government announced a week before its implementation that the new regulations will now only apply to fourteen festivals.

NSW racing minister Paul Toole explained that these festivals have been singled out as “high risk”, because drug-related death or serious illness has occurred at them over the last three years, or the government has simply deemed them as posing such a risk.

And the Liberal Nationals government notified the promoters of the fourteen festivals – which include Laneway, Defqon.1 and FOMO – that they were being targeted with the overbearing regulatory measures via text message late last Friday night.

This theatre of the absurd move was sparked by the enormous outcry against the forthcoming licensing regime that’s supposed to be rolled out this Friday. The backlash included the Don’t Kill Live Music rally held in Hyde Park last week, which saw 20,000 plus people show up to lend their support.

However, rather than placate the industry, those on the inside say the hit list has driven a further wedge between it and authorities, as the government has neglected to consult with it, the final version of the licensing regime is still unknown, and the list of targeted festivals is questionable.

Misguided at best

“It’s yet another example of how rushed and botched this whole process has been,” said NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann. “I’ve heard that of those fourteen that have been drawn into Gladys Berejiklian’s hit list, some of them have been wondering why they’ve been chosen over others.”

The Greens spokesperson for the night time economy and music stressed that the licensing regime in its new iteration will still drive festivals interstate. And the festivals being targeted – and likely to have to move on – all involve large numbers of young people going to see DJs and live music.

Faehrmann outlined that the priority is to get the 1 March date postponed, so the licensing regime’s impact can be further considered. But, if it does go ahead, her party will be moving a disallowance motion against it, which should be supported by Labor and even the Shooters and Fishers Party.

“The premier still wants to look like she’s playing tough when it comes to festivals,” Ms Faehrmann told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “But, she recognises that there has been a huge backlash, not just by the industry, but by patrons and the community themselves.”

Sending promoters bankrupt

The thing is though, Berejiklian’s licensing regulations have already had grave implications for some in the industry. And these casualties of the new regime prior to its launch were not on Gladys’ hit list once it was released.

A few weeks back, Psyfari announced that it wouldn’t be going ahead due to the excessive regulations that perhaps would never have applied to it, while Mountain Sounds had to cancel a week before the event was set to take place citing a $200,000 user pays policing bill.

Hitting up organisers with exorbitant user pays policing quotes just prior to events is a new tactic NSW police began using to shut down festivals last year. Bohemian Beatfreaks made its way over the border into Queensland in November, after police upped its bill from $16,000 to close to $200,000.

“The premier should be approaching Psyfari and Mountain Sounds and talking with them about potentially reimbursing festivals that have had to pay out large amounts,” Ms Faehrmann continued, adding there’s concerns the increased policing fees will still apply despite the licensing scale down.

Avoiding the real issue

“The premier isn’t dealing with the issue that she should be dealing with, which is pill testing,” Faehrmann made clear. “Why doesn’t she look at that group of fourteen festivals and trial pill testing at them if she is saying that there’s high use of illicit drugs there?”

But, try as they may, most in the community cannot answer the question as to why Ms Berejiklian won’t consider pill testing and the evidence from around the globe that it works. Instead, the premier actually goes to the lengths of claiming that there is no evidence.

Beginning with the Netherlands in 1992, a number of European countries have been utilising pill testing since the 90s. The fact that they continue to do so should be enough evidence to show that this harm reduction approach to illicit party drugs works.

Further, a pill testing trial was held last April at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival that potentially saved two punter’s lives, as they binned their drugs once their test results revealed that their pills contained a substance that can prove fatal.

And just last week, as the Berejiklian government writhing its death throes continued to stick its head in the sand, the forward-thinking ACT government announced that it will be allowing pill testing to take place at the same festival this year after the success of the last trial.

Gladys’ greatest misses

In September last year, two young Australians died in drug-related circumstances at the Defqon.1 festival. In response, the premier convened an expert panel to consider music festival safety. No one in the industry or in harm reduction were involved. And it was told not to consider pill testing.

Following the tabling of the panel’s report, the Liberals came out swinging with their continued tough on drug stance. The government enacted a new law which makes it a crime punishable by 20 years in prison for providing someone with a drug that leads to their death.

Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale warned that this law could easily be used to prosecute a friend who passes on a pill to another at a festival. And indeed, similar laws have been used to punish friends and family members in the United States.

In January, a new on-the-spot fining system for drug possession at festivals came into play. And while this should be praised for steering people away from courts, a $400 fine is a bit steep for young people who might be tempted to dangerously drop all their drugs at once to avoid one.

This fining system seems to lack any logic. If an individual is found with up to O.25 grams of MDMA in capsule form they can receive a fine and avoid arrest, while the same rule applies for up to 0.75 grams of the very same drug if it’s in powder form in a zip-lock plastic bag.

And now Gladys is implementing her secretive, on-again off-again licensing regime designed to bankrupt promoters for not being able to keep the same drugs out of their festivals that the police can’t even manage to do. And meanwhile, three more young people have lost their lives at festivals.

Increasing the harms

“The premier has made the whole environment much worse,” Ms Faehrmann went on. “We have heard about an increase in police presence, an increase in sniffer dogs at the entrance of festivals and this is only leading young people to engage in riskier behaviour.”

It’s well known these days that saturation policing and the presence of drug dogs can lead young people to partake in dangerous drug taking practices, such as panic overdosing, which is when someone downs all of their drugs at once to avoid getting caught.

Ms Faehrmann said if the premier had implemented pill testing following the first deaths, other lives might have been saved. “Instead, she’s shut festivals down, she’s driving festivals interstate, people are still engaging in risky behaviour and no one is safer,” she concluded. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”

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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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