TONY SMITH. Last hurrah for New South Wales Coalition Government – a festival election?

Feb 19, 2019

The Coalition Government in New South Wales faces the fixed four year election in late March. It has been looking desperate for the last couple of years and has come under pressure recently about drug deaths at music festivals. Its decided course of action in this area might well alienate younger voters and prove to be the final nail in the Coalition coffin.

The Berejiklian Coalition Government’s hold on power in Macquarie Street has appeared tenuous for some time. By-election losses for the Nationals in Orange (to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers) and the Liberals in Wagga (to an Independent) suggest that the Coalition could lose regional seats. A Mudgee based organisation has been campaigning on the theme ‘anyone but the Nationals’ and One Nation fancies its chances of influencing some outcomes with preferences. The general odium attaching to the Liberal ‘brand’ since the ousting of Prime Minister Turnbull, the loss of the Wentworth by-election and the resignation of Julia Banks will have some effect. All this occurs before consideration of specific Coalition policy failures. Now the Government has made a decision on music festivals which risks alienating younger voters across the state.

Following several deaths of young people attending music festivals in the last year, the state government was pressed for a response. The only new suggestion has been for the provision of testing facilities for pills so that the young could make informed decisions about whether they would take the risk. The suggestion has been opposed by more conservative elements which argue that abstention is the only safe course. The government and police and health authorities have generally endorsed this view. The Labor Opposition has promised to hold a drugs summit which would consider all points of view.

The Government has taken the decision to adopt a user-pays policy on festivals. The cost of policing festivals, of providing emergency health care, of securing liquor licences and of insurance would skyrocket. Organisers of several large festivals have responded that their events would become unviable and already a couple of events have folded. The organisers of the very popular Byron bay festival have threatened to take their event across the border into Queensland.

Part of the adverse reaction to the policy is attributable to the lack of consultation with the music industry. The policy at this stage appears to be an extremely blunt instrument which treats all festivals as though they are in similar circumstances. In reality, music festivals across the state are extremely diverse. Not all are intended to make a profit and many smaller festivals are run almost entirely by volunteers.

Organisers of some folk festivals have become alarmed that they will be expected to conform to the requirements imposed on the larger festivals at which drugs have been a problem. A large proportion of the attendance at folk festivals is of the baby-boomer generation and any pill testing undertaken at these venues is more likely to discover drugs designed to control blood pressure and cholesterol than to provide an illegal high. These festivals are run mainly by volunteers and ensure that local communities benefit because of the spending of attendees on accommodation and in the retail sectors of small towns.

The Government has announced that there will be an adjustable scale for the charges levied on festivals. Charges for smaller festivals will not be as great as those imposed on larger festivals. It has however created alarm among festival organisers and it would be unfortunate if it has done this unnecessarily. Indeed the alarm might well be impossible to reverse. Younger attendees at the smaller festivals are unlikely to appreciate any distinction the Government might eventually make and are likely to be in sympathy with their generation across the state. Younger people are already irked by the Government’s ‘shut out’ laws which insist on the closing of licensed premises by certain hours in some locations. They see the policy on festivals as consistent with a patronising, unrealistic attitude to their behaviour.

The issue of drug deaths among young attendees at music festivals is tragic and serious. Perhaps the Government is caught in a situation in which there is no perfect solution.. It is strongly opposed to the principle of harm minimisation and the user pays policy seems to suggest that it wants to pass the responsibility for preventing deaths on to the organisers of festivals. It is possible that the policy might work in the long run. Unfortunately for the Coalition Government, it will be judged in the very short term on 23 March.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics. In recent years he has attended ‘folk’ festivals at Bulli, Kiama, Kangaroo Valley, Cobargo, St Albans, Goulburn and Yass.

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