After assaults, drug overdoses, drug trafficking and almost 30 people allegedly drug-driving home, debate rages on about the value and risks of the controversial Rainbow Serpent Festival’s and its future. Alex Ford looks at some of the differing viewpoints.
While the five-day event brings a huge economic boost to towns like Lexton and Beaufort, and most festival-goers are well-behaved, police are angry about the number of arrests made – many were given drug diversions or cautions, but some faced court on trafficking and possession offences.
Ballarat area commander Inspector Dan Davison said the traffickers had been “very overt”.
“That indicates to me that the festival itself has been hijacked by potential organised crime as a platform for them to sell their wares to the vulnerable patrons at the festival,” he said.
But Pyrenees Shire mayor Robert Vance said organisers had done as much they could.
“The organisers aren’t (making people take drugs), and they’re doing everything they can to stop it.”
“You’ve got to weigh up the life of a human being against the dollars in the community,” Cr Vance said.
While he personally supports the annual Rainbow Serpent dance festival, he’s aware there’s problems - but he said council worked well with organisers, who were doing everything they could.
“I can’t understand for the life of me why someone would pour pills down their neck - the organisers aren’t doing it, and they’re doing everything they can to stop it,” he said.
“You don’t hear about the deaths or occurrences in Ballarat or metropolitan Melbourne, it’s a societal problem.”
In Lexton on Tuesday, as campers emerged back into the real world and a media blitz descended on the police’s breath testing set-up, the Pyrenees Hotel was doing a merry trade selling cold drinks and charging phones.
People in the town appear to support the festival, which brings trade and tourists out and keeps businesses going.
The co-operative post office across the road, where locals all own shares, has a small table of things people might have forgotten - items like hand sanitiser or toothbrushes.
Sitting in the shade outside was Lea, all the way from Freiburg, in Germany, who’d just enjoyed her first Rainbow.
“Every festival is different in their own way, and this was good fun,” she said.
“We do have festivals like Rainbow that are even bigger - the set-up, with all the decorations, was really impressive, but the best part for me was the connections I had with my friends and the people I was with.
“Everyone’s in a good mood, everyone’s having fun.”
Former Buninyong MP Geoff Howard was on-site on Saturday, for the second year in a row, and he agreed.
“What I saw, there aren’t any problems with the organisation, and thinking 20,000 people can go out and enjoy themselves, it would be a shame if such a festival were closed down,” he said.
“They have a clinic on site with hospital staff, there’s a range of people there providing advice on sensible behaviour and the dangers of drug taking, that sort of thing, and they keep people well watered.
“The layout’s quite good too, there’s a number of dance sites and the main tent area to talk with others, meditate, and hear speakers.”
Festival spokesperson Tim Harvey said there was always work to be done, but this year’s festival was a success.
“We agree one (person taken to hospital) is too many, we want to see harms reduced,” he said.
“What’s missing from the criticism is acknowledgement of the good behaviour of 99 per cent of people at the festival who got through the weekend safely and managed to have a fantastic time.
“I think there’s a warped view that occurs when you’re talking about a festival that contains some type of electronic music.”
Most festival-goers on Tuesday said their biggest concerns were the heat earlier in the week, and the lack of mobile phone coverage.
However, the police had bigger concerns.
Last year, police reported two sexual assaults, five arrests for drug possession and 44 people testing positive to drug driving.
This year, police arrested 54 people for drug-related offences, with 12 people charged with trafficking.
“They’ve been so blatant about it, certainly it’s made our job easier to catch them.”- Inspector Dan Davison
There were six reported overdoses.
One woman is still in a critical condition at the Austin Hospital.
There were two assaults, two sexual assaults, two traffic incidents – including a truck rolling into people – and as of Tuesday afternoon, 28 people stopped for drug driving.
Mr Harvey said the extra police presence was “very evident”.
“We had 18,000 people on-site for five days - while the results are concerning and we should always aim for better, when you look at the percentages of people … it’s comparative, if not better, for towns with an equal size within Victoria - in Bendigo, one in four drivers was caught with drugs in their system.”
Ballarat area commander Inspector Dan Davison said he was worried about organised crime targeting the festival.
“To be honest, the festival itself, as well-run as it is by the festival organisers, they can’t gear up to tackle the sort of crime that we’ve seen in there this year, particularly in the drug space,” he said.
“We’re trying to reduce the harms to our community, and by being a highly visible police presence, we’ve been in the opportune time and opportune place within the festival to be able to target people who’ve been trafficking drugs.
“They’ve been so blatant about it, certainly it’s made our job easier to catch them.”
Inspector Davison, who admitted to being more of a Download Festival fan - he’d rather see Anthrax than Sphongle - said the police had a great working relationship with the organisers.
“We’ve worked really strongly with the Rainbow Serpent staff and organisation, and we’ll continue to do that while the festival’s an active arrangement with the Pyrenees Shire,” he said.
“We support a safe festival, we support people to come along and enjoy themselves.
“What we don’t support is illicit drug trafficking, we don’t support people coming along and taking dangerous steps that really they shouldn’t be, that place themselves and members of the public in jeopardy.”
The festival is keen to return next year, following a debriefing with police and council.
“We acknowledge the difficult position that council find themselves in, but we’re confident, as always, that we can work through these challenges, and we hope to be part of the Pyrenees Shire for another 22 years to come,” Mr Harvey said.
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