Don’t Forget What The Liberal Government Has Done To Music In NSW

Since the Liberal government was elected in 2011, they have done all they can to bring the live music industry to its knees.

NSW Election Liberal lockout laws

#VoteMusic: that’s the call to action Australia’s music industry has blasted out this week ahead of the upcoming NSW election.

After weeks of controversy, cancellations, and one class action lawsuit, the promoters behind Laneway, Splendour and Falls have joined forces with industry bodies like Music NSW, ARIA and APRA to encourage music fans to vote out Gladys Berejiklian when the state goes to the polls on March 23.

If you live in Sydney, you probably already know why. Since the state Liberal government was elected in 2011, it has handed down a series of laws and regulations that have gutted the music industry, using clubs and festivals as a convenient scapegoat for issues they’d rather not have to actually deal with. Lately, things have got so bad that the industry is in a fight for its survival and live music has become a very real election issue.

There are lots of reasons you should vote out the Liberal government this month. But just as a reminder, here’s why everything they’ve done to music is one of them.

First, They Decimated Kings Cross With Lockouts

World Bar. Goodgod. Backroom. Soho. Hugo’s. The Flinders. These are just some of the venues that have closed since Sydney’s lockout laws were introduced in 2014, part of a change in our late night landscape that means there are now 176 fewer venues in the city’s ‘entertainment precinct’ than there used to be.

This is incredibly shitty for people who love and work in music, but it’s fucked the rest of the city too. A recent study showed Sydney is missing out on $16 billion a year because our nighttime economy is underdeveloped. Foot traffic to the CBD at night has fallen by over 80 percent, something that’s affected retailers and restaurants as well as clubs.

It doesn’t help that music is already widely underfunded across the state: a parliamentary enquiry found that if music in NSW was to be funded on the same per-capita basis as Victoria, we’d need more than eight times what we currently receive.

The numbers are bad, but the cultural damage done to Sydney over the past few years is harder to quantify — how do new artists kickstart their careers if there’s nowhere for them to play? What music hasn’t been made because there wasn’t the scene there to foster it?

And don’t forget how the laws came down: rushed through parliament without any consultation with the nightlife industry and put into effect just three weeks later. They were a knee jerk response to one punch deaths in Kings Cross that didn’t address any of the root problems of male violence — say, toxic masculinity, or Australia’s relationship with alcohol — but instead zeroed in on live music and entertainment as an easy fall guy for a complex issue.

They Gave Casinos The All Clear, Though

One place the party is still pumping, however, is the casino.

When the NSW Government announced the boundaries of the ‘entertainment precinct’ that would be subject to the lockout laws, it left both The Star casino and the soon-to-be-built Crown Casino at Barangaroo off the map, despite the fact that The Star was the most violent venue in NSW at the time. And, yeah, that special treatment for casinos probably isn’t a coincidence.

The state and national Liberal parties have an uncomfortably close relationship with the casinos, something that’s been well-documented over the years. In James Packer, who own Crown Casinos, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the federal Liberal party (as well as Labor and the Nationals). Later that year, Crown’s development application for the Barangaroo casino was rushed through its approval process by former state Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell and then-Treasurer Mike Baird.

And while other venues have floundered, The Star has thrived under the lockout laws. In the first five months after the laws were introduced, as late night crowds were left with nowhere else to party, they enjoyed a $100 million jump in revenue. Then in 2015 the former president of the NSW Liberal Party, Chris Downy, resigned after scoring a top job at….you guessed it, The Star.

The Star is also exempt from the violent venues scheme and three strikes scheme, under which other bars, pubs and clubs face the loss of their liquor license for repeated breaches of licensing laws. Which is lucky for them, because assaults at the casino significantly increased after the lockout laws were implemented.

If the laws were a measure designed to reduce violence, why was the most violent venue in the state exempt?

Not to mention the fact that while you can’t even buy a drink after 3am in Kings Cross, but you can smoke 24 hours a day, seven days a week inside a casino.

Nothing exposes the fallacy the lockout laws were built on more clearly than the exemptions granted to casinos. Because if the laws were a measure designed to reduce violence, why was the most violent venue in the state exempt? And if you’re just trying to make the city safer, why go to lengths to ensure a social evil like gambling, which kills one Australian a day, can prosper? Years on, these are questions the state government still hasn’t been able to answer.

At The Same Time, They Scapegoated Festivals For Their Own Failed Drug Policy

Here’s a terrible statistic: almost 2000 people die from drug-related deaths every year in Australia.

In 2016, the most recent year the Australian Bureau of Statistics has released figures for, an overdose victim was most likely to be a middle-aged male, living outside of a capital city, who misused prescription drugs.

But if you’ve been following Gladys Berejiklian’s press conferences, the drug deaths you’re most likely to have heard about are the couple that take place at festivals every summer, where the dead are overwhelmingly young, white, middle class and urban based. Theirs are the sort of faces it’s easy for the government to latch onto to and use as an opportunity to appear tough on drugs.

The truth is Australia’s tough on drug policy is failing spectacularly. In 2016 the amount of drug deaths in Australia was the highest it’s been in twenty years, at pace with the number of fatalities during the peak of the heroin crisis. The majority of those deaths took place outside of metropolitan areas.

Unemployment, mental health conditions and chronic health issues statistically make people more likely to abuse drugs. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were almost four times more likely to suffer a drug-related death than other Australians.

These national statistics are obviously not the fault of the NSW Government alone, but they do illustrate that festivals are not where the government needs to fight their drug battle. Capital cities are not where they need to fight their battle. The majority of drug-related deaths in Australia have nothing to do with live music and have everything to do with social disadvantage.

The NSW Government’s approach to drugs is not just ineffective, or lazy, or misguided, though it is all of those things too. It is immoral and it is letting people die.

And many of the deaths that do take place at music events could be prevented by pill testing, something the government refuses to implement. We know that pill testing saves lives. The logic behind it is astoundingly simple. But instead of that low cost solution, we got increased police presence and sniffer dog numbers at events — something that arguably makes ecstasy more dangerous.

The Liberal government does not care about the people who struggle with addiction and die in the shadows of regional Australia every year, and it doesn’t care about teenagers who die at festivals either. Because instead of doing anything to actually make attending festivals safer, they’ve used them as a diversionary tactic from a bigger, harder, more complicated issue. They have rejected reason every step of the way and stormed ahead with a drug approach that is little more than political point scoring.

The NSW Government’s approach to drugs is not just ineffective, or lazy, or misguided, though it is all of those things too. It is immoral and it is letting people die.

Now They’re Coming For Festivals

Just like lockouts were implemented in a knee jerk response to alcohol-fuelled violence, the new wave of festival regulations have come down as a band-aid “solution” to overdose deaths at festivals.

Without consultation, last month Gladys Berejiklian put in place measures that may make it too expensive for festivals to operate in NSW at all. She decreed that events classed as “high risk” won’t be granted a permit to operate unless they also cough up for the cost of police and emergency services attending — a service priced so high that Mountain Sounds and Psyfari have already cancelled their 2019 events after being hit with police bills they couldn’t afford.

Moreover, the government’s classification of what constitutes a “high risk” event doesn’t seem to be understood even by them. Even Laneway, the “festival you can take your mum to”, is on their naughty list.

It might seem like it’s come out of nowhere but actually, the NSW Government has been moving towards this policy for years. In early 2016, then-Premier Mike Baird threatened to ban festivals after a woman overdosed at Field Day. He said he wanted to review how festivals were granted event permits and make it harder for them to go ahead. The plan to clamp down on festivals has been underway for years — 2019 was just the year the Liberal government were able to make their dream a reality.

If you don’t want to see what else they bring to pass in 2019, you know what to do when the NSW election comes on March 23. #VoteMusic, because festivals and clubs do not kill people. Only bad governance does that.

Katie Cunningham is a former Junkee editor and current freelance writer based in Sydney. She has written for the ABC, Rolling Stone, The Big Issue and more. She is on Twitter