'Rainbow Serpent Festival: All the Colours of Petty Politics' / Clementine Girard-Foley
Rainbow Serpent Festival this year was a 'horror weekend' apparently; it reeked with drugs, sex and every other form of 'unacceptable' behaviour you could possibly imagine. Bumps of ketamine were stuffed up dusty noses as handcuffs clinked, announcing the presence of police in high vis vests as they melted into the laser beam décor, with the occasional serviceperson throwing a sneaky fist pump in the air when thought to be unobserved. Multiple media sources such as The Age, The Herald Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph have bashed the arts and music festival for every wrongdoing they could think up, to the extent that a bunch of 19 to 23-year-old kids were branded agents of organised criminal syndicates believed to have 'hijacked' the festival.
My experience at Rainbow Serpent was far from this modern mass murderer image that a lot of the mainstream media, the police and some politicians have been circulating. In actual fact, it was probably the most safety-concerned festival I’ve ever been to in my life. A safe space called The Nest was dedicated to the victims of sexual assault and gender-identity problems, and another was dedicated to those harmed by the consumption of drugs and alcohol. At any point in time, rangers would roam around campsites and dance stages relaying information about patrons’ safety to security services in addition to being on-call for any help or requests by the partygoers. Even catchy one-liners posted around the festival advised us on how to party well (“You can’t rave and repeat without eat, drink and sleep”). The overwhelming message I got from the festival was to prioritise looking after each other in a climate of non-judgement, safety and solidarity.
Call all the above anecdotal evidence, but the mere fact that 20 drug overdoses can happen in one night due to a bad batch of MDMA circulating around Melbourne’s clubs when there were seven in total at Rainbow festival, with 18,000 people in attendance over five long, 40 degree-plus days, is a testament to the festival’s efforts at creating a safer partying environment. It seems like music festivals such as Rainbow have been an easy target for politicians wanting to seem tough on drugs and their consequences amongst anti-drug voters. It’d be too tempting not to profit from drug deaths at a festival in order to enhance a zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime image that is marketable to older electorates that might be unsatisfied with a range of other issues. This becomes an even easier process when the demographic that is being targeted is young and is associated with the creative arts, lacks the resources to lobby for the government’s sympathy or even have its own voice heard in response to these accusations of degeneracy. The political currency associated with the issue of drugs at music festivals reasonably explains both the Victorian and NSW governments’ refusal to allow for pill testing to be implemented. When entrapped in a conundrum over whose interests are best to protect, the apparent answer was to ditch the welfare of young people’s lives and opt for the politically-safer move of a hardline stance on drugs.
The interesting aspect of a study on pill testing in the UK - an alternative approach to pretending people won’t take drugs if you tell them not to - is that not only are the ingredients of pills examined by chemists, but counsellors will follow up by explaining to the potential drug user how the substances will affect them, what is meant by their strength and how they can minimise possible harms caused by consuming the drug. Pretty useful when nine out of ten surveyed drug users at that festival had never spoken to a medical professional about their drug consumption before. The study proved to be insanely successful, with four out of 10 people deciding to take less of the drug upon finding out its makeup and strength as well as an estimated 25 per cent reduction in drug-related harms. There are simply so many benefits to this approach it borders on baffling that our governments and media are so furiously against it.
Rainbow, undoubtedly, was a political event. There had been plans to host a pill testing demonstration cancelled at the last minute due to a lack of support by Victoria Police. The organisers of the festival had released a four minute-long video in support of pill testing in the lead up to the event. For the first time ever, a Labor MP was in attendance at the festival. Geoff Howard, who is in charge of a parliamentary inquiry into drug law reform in Victoria that is focused on harm-minimisation strategies related to drug use, came to observe the festival in order to obtain more evidence on what solutions are the best to adopt. And the political attention was not just a national affair, as Professor Fiona Measham (who has successfully lead the pill testing movement in the UK) spoke on a panel on drug-harm minimisation. In a time where efforts are being made to move towards more progressive strategies, ramping up the police presence at the festival to fill in quotas for arrests looked like a theatrical parade rather than anything more substantial. The divide could not have been any clearer, for there were informed discussions taking place involving people committed to finding the best ways to protect people’s lives right alongside the punishing presence of authority, deaf to advice and forever-reliant upon the use of force and a capacity to inspire fear in order to get its way.
This is not to say that drug usage and overdoses should not be ignored and that a change in the way we do drugs isn’t needed. There is a problem with drug culture, but prohibiting drugs is not a viable avenue as the current environment shows us. Drug education, if anything, is a greater necessity. It’s the group of lads that stuff two supergoogs down their friend’s throat at nine in the morning who need help and education, not the thousands of people who take drugs more responsibly in spite of the lack of information on the substances’ composition, and who rely on Chinese-whispered wisdoms rather than medically-certified truths in order to make their decisions when they are out partying.
A message that demonises a festival like Rainbow, which has gone to incredible lengths to create a safer space, is a misguided attempt at identifying the problem at stake and one which is incredibly harmful to the arts, music and culture the festival nurtures. State governments are seemingly trying to scurry away from obvious solutions which are deemed a political risk; with the media reports on Rainbow either being simple blame-shifting strategies used to appeal to particular electorates and/or sensationalised story-selling content. One lasting worry is to do with the many media outlets which chose to comply with obvious political machinations or at the very least, sided with one particular view on the pill testing debate. If newspapers have nothing to gain from propagating the truth about a situation and rely upon exaggerated pieces of distorted information, then there is a lot to worry about the fairness of Australia’s informational landscape - let alone the welfare of those who do not fit within the mould that is coveted by the press.
Cover image: Josh Smith