How did music festivals become an election issue? – explainer

A music festival in Sydney

 The music industry has accused the NSW government of waging a ‘war on festivals’. Photograph: Todd Spoth Photography

Music festivals are in the news and the major parties have released live music policies in the lead-up to next month’s New South Wales state election. How did this happen?

Here are some key questions answered:

Why are music festivals in the news?

The NSW government has announced it will roll out new licensing laws for music festivals on 1 March. Industry figures reacted with dismay, saying the changes will destroy the live music culture in NSW, and two festivals have been cancelled.

Mountain Sounds festival, scheduled for this weekend, announced it was pulling the pin as a result of being hit with an unexpected bill of close to $200,000 from NSW police to have 45 officers on site. It follows Psyfari festival announcing that it would not go ahead, saying “the current political climate surrounding festivals in NSW” made putting on the festival “a recipe for disaster”.

Byron Bay Bluesfest’s director, Peter Noble, threatened to pull the internationally acclaimed festival out of NSW as a consequence of the new laws and the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” it would cost for them to comply. In an open letter to the government, Noble asked, “Why do you seem to be hell-bent on destroying our industry?”

The industry has said the government is waging a “war on festivals”, calling for music fans to vote on the issue when NSW goes to the polls on 23 March. A rally under the banner of “Don’t Kill Live Music” has been called; organisers have circulated a petition against what it calls “punitive” regulation, with signatories from artists and industry players including Henry Rollins, Amy Shark, Courtney Barnett, Ticketmaster, Mushroom and Sydney’s Mardi Gras.

So where did all this start?

In September Joseph Pham, 23, and Diana Nguyen, 21, died of suspected drug overdoses after attending the Defqon.1 music festival in Castlereagh. Seven other festival attendees were treated in hospital for drug-related illness.

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, responded by saying her government had “zero tolerance” for drugs and she vowed to shut the festival down, though she later said she wanted music festivals to go ahead “safely”. The government then assembled an “expert panel” to investigate safety at music festivals.

The panel recommended streamlining what it called “largely ad hoc” regulation by creating a new licence specific to music festivals, on-the-spot fines for drug possession, and a new offence for people who supply drugs to someone who later dies, among other harm reduction recommendations.

More deaths related to drug use at music festivals followed the report’s release. In December and January, Callum Brosnan, 19, Joshua Tam, 22, and Alex Ross King, 19, died after attending music festivals. A coronial inquest into the music festival deaths was announced in January.

What does pill testing have to do with it?

Since September the Berejiklian government has refused to consider pill testing as an alternative to law enforcement strategies.

The merits of pill testing have been hotly debated. Harm minimisation advocates say it is not about drug endorsement, but about informing potential drug users in a healthcare context about what they are about to consume and its possible implications. Berejiklian said advocates of pill testing were “giving the green light to drugs”.

Governments around Australia have mostly been reluctant to consider introducing pill testing but, in April, the Australian Capital Territory ran Australia’s first pill testing trial at the music festival Groovin’ the Moo. It was hailed a “tremendous” success by the ACT’s chief health officer, police commissioner, paramedics and drug reform advocates.

So what are these new laws and how are they affecting festivals?

The changes in the laws are tied to licensing and associated health and safety requirements.

The new laws will assess the various risks at an event, such as the number of people attending, location, experience of the operator – even the weather – but little detail has been provided.

Adelle Robinson from the Australia Festival Association told Guardian Australia that “uncertainty” was the main issue, as well as the “rushed” implementation of the new laws, the lack of regulatory impact assessment and insufficient industry consultation.

What about the lockout laws?

The rollout of the laws has played into a deeper debate about live music in NSW. Many in the industry, see the legislation as a further attack on NSW’s live music culture, which goes back to the introduction of the state’s controversial lockout laws in 2014.

A parliamentary committee was established in 2017 to assess the state of the NSW music and arts economy. The committee released its report in November, saying there was a live music “crisis” in the state that was having a devastating effect on the cultural economy. That report included recommended amendments to legislation to remove “outdated” conditions for liquor licences that place “unnecessary restrictions” on venues.

Where do political parties stand on this issue?

MusicNSW have issued a report card that rates the political parties according to their music policies. The advocacy group Keep Sydney Open, created in response to the lockout laws, has morphed into a political party and says it will run candidates on policies including legalising pill testing and relaxing licensing laws.

The Greens have opposed the new festival licensing scheme, with the Greens MP Cate Faehrmann calling it “disastrous … policy on the run” that would “decimate” the industry.

The NSW government announced $1.5m in extra funding in January to “boost the Sydney and NSW night-time economy”, including a one-off grants program for particular precincts in the state capital, the trialling “pop-up” liquor licences, and a $1m fund to help stage live music events.

The federal Labor party announced a music policy in December, pledging to spend $28m across the sector nationally. NSW Labor followed in January, promising another new type of licence, specifically for live entertainment venues, and to streamline regulation of noise.

NSW Labor has also promised to hold a drug summit if elected, similar to the one that occurred under the premier Bob Carr in 1999, which led to safe heroin injecting rooms being established in Sydney’s Kings Cross. “Pill testing should not be off the table,” the opposition leader Michael Daley said in December. “Just saying no is not the answer.”