NSW ‘s war on music festivals won’t stop overdoses – I’ve seen this policy mirage before

I am a survivor of the ill-conceived liquor licensing policy that nearly wiped out live music in Victoria in 2010. I now see with horror the same regulatory mistakes being made in NSW in reaction to the 1% of accidental drug overdose deaths that happened to occur at music festivals in NSW this year.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian is pretending to address drug policy and law by doctoring liquor licensing law in an attempt to shift the NSW Government’s moral and legal responsibility onto music festivals.

This is unconscionable and a cowardly political diversional tactic. More importantly, it will be ineffective. Liquor licencing law regulates the consumption of alcohol. It’s not intended to manage events or somehow address controlling an illegal activity. The bureaucracy that administers the NSW Liquor Act has no knowledge about how festivals are run or how its business models function.

As an example, festival producers have to pay substantial deposits to headline acts – in the order of $10,000s to $100,000s – six months or more out from the festival dates. They need certainty to invest these funds but a 90 day application period just doesn’t work, particularly if there is no transparent decision review process. Normally the process of enacting regulations requires a Regulator Impact Statement, but clearly the NSW Government has sidestepped this detail in its haste to be seen to have answers and acting on them in the NSW pre-election environment.

The reality is that drug overdoses deaths occur all the time throughout Australia. A minuscule proportion happen at music festivals.

Requiring divisions of police to be deployed en masse and be paid for by music festivals will not yield effective results because it hasn’t for decades in the broader Australian context. But what it will do is financially bankrupt our music festivals or price them out of existence whilst not actually stopping, or addressing, the real motivations behind why people take illicit drugs.

Community sporting events don’t have to pay for over-policing and neither do politicians have to pay for their protective service – but perhaps the latter should – and out of their own pockets.

Denying our participation in and access to live music culture is a violation of our human rights. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts”.

It’s not something that we, privileged as many of us might be, are used to thinking in terms of. However, those among us who identify with the First Nations would be cognisant with the suppression of culture. This is also an attack on Indigenous contemporary cultural by denying opportunities for Indigenous artists to perform at music festivals in NSW. It is no different to the breach of Article 27 and also constitutes a breach by the NSW Government of Article 11 of ‘The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’.

The reality is that drug overdoses deaths occur all the time throughout Australia. A minuscule proportion happen at music festivals. People take illegal drugs in an infinite number of settings: At weddings, house parties, going to the races, playing sport or maybe micro-dosing psilocybin at a flower show. I know of an amateur cricket team who “dropped a tab for the Don” prior to taking to the field. It’s not an activity that exclusively happens at music festivals.

State governments have consistently resisted measures to address harm prevention so the accidental deaths by overdose are on their heads.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that 547 drug-induced deaths occurred in NSW in 2016. These deaths are a direct result of the decades long accumulation of failed drug policies and ineffective policing. It is nothing to do with live music or music festivals per se. Closing down all the music festivals in NSW will not stop overdoses and will not make a dent in the drug-related death numbers.

The NSW Government needs to first rationally address drug policy and then base its policy on the best available evidence and expert advice rather than scapegoat music festivals for its decades of accumulated failures.

Enjoying live music is not a high-risk activity but taking untested, unknown drugs is. Health professionals and the police have warned us through the media multiple times that dangerous drugs would circulate in the community this summer.  Sadly, this crisis was always going to happen.

Festivals have said they would love to work cooperatively with health professionals, if they were allowed.

State governments have consistently resisted measures to address harm prevention so the accidental deaths by overdose are on their heads. This is a complex area of policy but blaming and punishing music festivals who have no statutory controls, or practical tools, to discourage illegal drug consumption, is effectively a strawman.

Festivals have stated that they would love to work cooperatively with health professionals, if they were allowed.  Rainbow Serpent Festival has stated: “We call on state governments around Australia to acknowledge the global evidence showing the benefits of pill testing and to untie the hands of promoters and allow us to deliver world’s best practice care for our patrons”.

We need rational policy, not a political mirage that is destined to destroy our musical culture. Ahead of the state election, NSW voters have a choice between a detailed industry-consulted NSW Labor Music policy and a  promise to “put an end to the war on music” or, the regulatory sledgehammer and ‘just say no’ approach favoured by the NSW Liberal Nation Party coalition. We know how well the latter works.

Look no further than the LNP’s federal colleagues ‘just saying no’ approach to administering emergency health care on Nauru and Mannus Island and, their grappling of energy and climate change policy. That’s going so well, isn’t it?

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