How will NSW-style policing fees affect Adelaide’s music festivals?

Changes to the state’s liquor licensing system have drawn heat, but how will the government’s adoption of a new ‘user pays’ policing system affect South Australia’s music festivals?

Announced last week as part of a wide-ranging suite of fee changes affecting everything from motorists to public transport fare evaders, this single, ambiguous dot point in a media release raises potentially game-changing repercussions for South Australian music festivals.

The initial announcement used examples like AFL matches and the Royal Adelaide show to demonstrate the kind of ‘commercial’ events that would be affected by the new system. Since our initial report flagged the possibility that music festivals could also be targeted, a spokesperson for Corey Wingard, Minister for Police, Emergency and Correctional Services and Minister for Recreation, Sport and Racing has further elaborated that “private promoters who generate profit from events which require extra police presence as a security measure, such as music festivals, will likely come under the scheme”.

The exact model and pricing structure, the Minister’s office says, is still being considered by SA Police, who plan to consult with stakeholders while drawing up the South Australian version of similar schemes introduced in New South Wales and Victoria. But for now, the uncertainty has proved frustrating for local promoters like Craig Lock, whose company 5/4 Entertainment has successfully run festivals like St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival and Splendour In The Grass offshoot Spin Off.

Childish Gambino
Childish Gambino is due to headline Spin Off festival in July

“Basically we organise a stakeholder meeting, inviting the police to come,” Lock says of the status quo. “Then we’ll work with them over the course of several months, talk them through what we’re doing with the event and they can raise any concerns. Ultimately, they tell us what they’re going to do, whether it’s 40 officers or a drug squad.”

From there, Lock says, police interface with the festival’s own security team leading up to and on the day, with security numbers already set by police consultation as part of a festival’s liquor licence. “[Then] they [Police] come, do their thing almost independently of what we’re doing.”

The varying scale of police involvement and murky way in which numbers are determined makes planning difficult once money comes into play. “It varies,” Lock says. “I’ve been involved in the event for six years, and there hasn’t been a consistent number or formula – it doesn’t seem to be based on capacity either. It’s just up to them and what they want to do at the time.”

The fear of the unknown is the biggest challenge facing promoters like Lock, for whom a question mark to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars can be the difference between success and failure. Lock cites the last-minute cancellation of Wollongong festival Mountain Sounds in February, after a $200,000 policing bill “blindsided” organisers as an example of what could go wrong.

Father John Misty performs at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival (Photo: Sia Duff)

With festivals already juggling high costs and significant levels of risk, the only real way to absorb that impact is through ticket pricing. But in a live music market as notoriously difficult as Adelaide, that could prove impossible. “The only real way you can change that is putting ticket prices up, which isn’t going to fly in Adelaide. It’s already really, really hard to sell tickets; we find that pretty much anything over $100-$120 is a disaster. If you start implementing things that are going to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars on budgets that are already stretched and have a lot of costs, it’s going to put festivals at tipping point.”

For national festival organisers looking to bring events to Adelaide, that extra risk could be the deciding factor that stops the South Australian leg of a festival going ahead. “Because we have such a smaller population, an aging population, they look at that compared to what they’re doing interstate, and think ‘why would I risk $500,00 to do this?’ It’s already risky.”

“Other states around Australia already have a user pays scheme in place for police services, including New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland,” a spokesperson for the Minister said. “Taxpayers should not have to pay for police officers to act as security at events where private promoters make a profit.”

SA Police will consult stakeholders on the new system in the coming months.

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