Desperate festivals sector pleads for weather insurance, as $22m Covid fund proves redundant

The industry fears it will not survive without a climate safety net and despite the government’s ‘goodwill’, help is needed now

Australian live performers will begin the new year with no safety net, as extreme weather, further disruptions from Covid-19 and rising costs threaten the viability of the peak festival season.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s $22m scheme designed to provide Covid insurance for live events was redundant before it had a chance to kick in and there appears to be nothing in the pipeline to replace it over the summer.

More than a dozen music festivals have been cancelled this year due to heavy rain and storms brought on by La Niña weather patterns, including Strawberry Fields in the Riverina, The Grass is Greener in Canberra and Geelong, Bendigo’s Almost Summer and both This That festivals in New South Wales and Queensland. The first day of Splendour in the Grass in Byron Bay was cancelled after a washout and Wollongong’s Yours and Owls was cancelled altogether.

With warnings mounting over a new Covid wave in the new year and the Bureau of Meteorology not predicting an end to La Niña until late summer, the live performance and festival sector has been left crippled – with no return to normal in sight.

‘Festivals we know and love may not survive’

In late September the federal government announced a $22m live performance support fund, allowing event organisers to access coverage in the event of cancellations due to Covid between November and February 2023.

But the fund only applied to events affected by mandatory isolation requirements – so when the national cabinet agreed in early October to end isolation requirements, the insurance scheme was rendered irrelevant.

Along with threats of bad weather and an ongoing pandemic, the Australian Festival Association (AFA) said the industry faced the start of 2023 with a 30% rise in supplier costs, inconsistent advanced ticket sales compared with pre-Covid patterns and a hike in insurance premiums by as much as 300%.

“The festivals that we know and love may not survive if they don’t have a successful first season back after Covid,” the association’s managing director, Mitch Wilson, told the Guardian. “They’ve struggled to stay alive.”

Despite being axed in early October, the $22m insurance fund was still counted as money spent to support the arts in the 2022 federal budget delivered on 25 October, some two weeks after the scheme had been abandoned.

Neither the arts minister, Tony Burke, nor his department would respond to the Guardian’s queries about why funding for a defunct support scheme was included in the 2022 budget.

A spokesperson from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications and the Arts said in a statement that Labor had made good an election promise to provide cover for live performance adversely affected by Covid.

“In line with national cabinet’s decision to end mandatory Covid-19 isolation periods from 14 October, industry can now proceed with events such as plays, concerts and festivals with confidence and without the need to access pandemic-related coverage from the commonwealth,” the statement said.

“The government is carefully considering future funding decisions ahead of the May 2023 federal budget, including any reallocation of unexpended funds.”

Calls grow to flood-proof outdoor festivals

An early December poll of 1,107 young people in five marginal NSW electorates conducted by the United Workers Union found that more than 40% of voters aged 18-24 wanted the NSW government to offer public funding to help flood-proof outdoor music events. Just over 20% believed it was not a government responsibility.

Union director Karma Lord said the live music industry had been “smashed” by years of repressive lockout laws, hostile planning regulations and Covid.

“Outdoor music festivals are a rite of passage for young people, but in 2022 we saw just how vulnerable they are to extreme weather events like floods,” she said.

“Young people see taxpayer money used to gold-plate arts and sports infrastructure aimed at older generations and they want a fair share of public funding for events that matter to them.”

Wilson said mid-2023 could be too late for many events and financial assistance at both state and federal levels was needed now.

“I think there’s a lot of goodwill from the new government … but we’ve gone to Canberra to say, ‘look, we’re facing immediate challenges here, we need immediate help’.”

Live Performance Australia has also been lobbying the government, with both it and AFA pleading to have a purpose-built scheme to cover weather-driven cancellations.

Wilson said it was impossible to quantify the financial losses incurred across the industry due to extreme weather events.

“Those festivals lucky enough to be covered for weather-related events have seen some of their losses covered by insurance but it is extremely inconsistent,” he said. “It’s just not sustainable.”


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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