Legalities and costs of hosting a music festival in New South Wales

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In NSW, festivals deemed 'subject' events must comply with approved policing and safety management plans.
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A further New South Wales music festival has been cancelled, with advocates stating that over-policing has had disastrous effects on the music festival industry. This comes in context of police strip searching children and the stigma of drug possession and supply at music festivals.

The 'Return to Rio' festival which has been held at Wisemans Ferry since 2013, showcasing funk, soul, and house music, is the latest event to be cancelled, amid escalating expenses.

Popular festivals 'Groovin the Moo' and 'Splendour in the Grass' have previously been cancelled for 2024, with organisers for both events also pointing to higher costs.

Redfern Legal Centre Police Accountability Solicitor, Sam Lee commented that: "these cancellations not only impact the cultural fabric but also deal a blow to the local economy. It's imperative to end the practice of excessive policing targeting young festivalgoers.

"We need to create a safer environment and help ensure the survival of the music industry. By prioritising the safety and well-being of attendees and adopting a more balanced approach to security, we can ensure that music festivals continues to flourish."

The organisers of 'Return to Rio' stated that their police and medical costs had increased 529% over 2019 levels. These extra costs included police fees of $110,000 for patrolling officers, a boat on the Hawkesbury River and an on-site compound.

In New South Wales, festivals deemed 'subject' events must comply with approved safety management plans. This normally involves a larger police and medical presence, with significant costs to be paid by organisers.

The NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority acts on recommendations from police and health authorities to determine whether a music festival is labelled a 'subject' event.

Click here for information on your rights at music festivals.

Legalities and Costs of Hosting a Music Festival in Australia

It is a criminal offence to hold a festival, if subject, unless there is an approved safety management plan, as well as hold the festival in a way which is not in accordance with the plan. It carries a maximum penalty of a $55,000 fine, under section 7 of the Music Festivals Act 2019 ( NSW).

The New South Wales Police refer to special events where they need to charge organisations as 'User Pays Policing Services'. Under this system, festival organisers are forced to bear the cost of police presence and the deployment of drug detection dogs.

"Festival organisers pay for attendance by NSW Police who subject attendees to humiliating and intimidating strip searches." noted Redfern Legal Centre in a media release.

On their website, the New South Wales Police explain that: "these services in turn help our clients meet their business needs and their responsibilities to the community. Recovering this cost from clients makes more police available for duty and helps ensure that normal policing services to the community can also be maintained."

The labour charges per police officer per hour for special events is $144 (inc. GST). Vehicles, cycles, bicycles, and watercrafts are additional charges. Furthermore, drug dogs are an additional $27.30 (inc. GST) per hour, in addition to their handlers' fees.

The 'User Pays' policy permits NSW Police to set the police resource requirements for an event. The policy notes that this assessment is based on venue size, amount of attendees, age group, alcohol availability and whether incidents have occurred at past or similar events.

During a March 2024 parliamentary budget estimates, Greens MP Cate Faehrmann spoke about this issue, detailing the experience of one unnamed festival which toured around Australia.

In NSW in 2023, the festival had 35,000 attendees, whereas 40,000 people attended in Victoria. In terms of police services, Victoria charged less than $10,000, whilst NSW charged $120,465.

Faehrmann explained how the police's ability to essentially dictate costs was a "conflict of interest" in that they receive "significant pay in terms of overtime".

Other festivals impacted by costs include the three-day Bohemian Beatfreaks festival which moved locations from northern NSW to Queensland, following a quote of $200,000 for police services.

In 2019, Mountain Sounds festival was cancelled after NSW Police stated they would need to pay $200,000 for 45 user-pays police officers who were to work a 24-hour schedule.

For festivals that ran in 2023, Listen Out was charged $246,552.90 for policing services, whereas Knockout Outdoor Festival was charged $117,544.68, meaning the police received $364,097.58 from organisers just for their services on 30 September 2023 alone, as both were held on the same date.

The Minister for Police, Yasmin Catley detailed in her responses to budget estimate queries that the total revenue from User Pays Policing Services in 2023 was $88,785,000. This can be compared to the total figure of $51,350,000 in 2019.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that police do not keep data in relation to what funds are particularly in relation to police attendance and drug dog attendance at festivals, so this figure encompasses all revenue from user pays policing services and cost recovery activities.

These activities include sports/entertainment events, transport escorts, control of traffic for film and television shoots, and information services such as criminal history records checks.

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