If you’ve been online at all in the past 24 hours, you will no doubt have seen that a major Hillsong event is currently taking place in NSW while most other major events have been cancelled.
The event, Wildlife Summercamp 2022, is run by the youth arm of the Hillsong Church and sees large crowds of mask-less people singing and dancing together under large tents at a time when similar gatherings have been banned.
Videos of the event, shared on the Hillsong Youth Instagram account, have drawn widespread condemnation, not least of all from the Australian music industry whose workers have been sidelined during the pandemic.
Under recent changes to public health orders brought in on Saturday, singing and dancing is banned in NSW until at least January 27.
NSW Health have demanded that the group immediately stop singing and dancing at the gathering just south of Newcastle. Health Minister Brad Hazzard has said that the event is in breach “of both the spirit and intent of the [public health] order.”
Both Grapevine Fathering, held at the Roche Estate in the Hunter Valley, and Tamworth Country Music Festival have been blocked from going ahead due to their events coming into conflict with newly issued NSW public health orders.
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp said holding the event was “pure arrogance”.
“This is the exact behaviour that health experts have deemed too risky at the moment, yet the organisers of this event seem to feel it’s absolutely fine for them to do so,” he said. “This is an absolute slap in the face to the people that have lost work as a result of the current rules.”
NSW Senator Jaquie Lambie has also criticised the event, saying that the group is “not special” and needs to be “slapped down.”
“This is a music festival no doubt. No doubt it will also top off with a super spreader,” Lambie told the Today programme. “Newcastle had a super spreader (event in December) go around from a nightclub. What is the difference? Because they don’t have a drink in their hand? Are you kidding me?”
In a statement to the ABC, Hillsong claim that the event complies with health regulations and that it is “not similar to a music festival in anyway.” This is in spite of videos showing people, under festival tents, dancing in crowds, to live music being played by a band on stage.
“Our camps involve primarily outdoor recreational activities including sports and games,” it said. Outdoor Christian services are held during the camp but these are only a small part of the program, and any singing is only a small part of each service”.
Hillsong said that it followed “strict COVID procedures including providing rapid antigen tests, use of face masks, deep cleaning and sanitisation”. It’s still not clear exactly how the Christian organisation was able to procure, presumably, thousands of rapid antigen tests while most people in the state struggle to access a single one.
The music industry has responded with blistering outrage and biting satire, with Aussie musicians banding together to form a ‘supergroup’ called Thrillsong. People like Alex The Astronaut, The Jungle Giants, Lime Cordiale, Peking Duk, Dune Rats and Confidence Man issued a joint statement on Instagram yesterday claiming that they are “here and ready to play your local sports event or church gathering”.
“NSW gigs and festivals are out,” they wrote, offering to accept payment in “cash, credit and RAT tests” for performing at definitely-not-a-music-festival religious events.
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“We firmly support measures to protect our fans and communities and to safeguard our healthcare workers, we simply ask that if rules are made, they apply to everyone equally. We need to be in this together,” the group said in a statement.
“If it looks like a gig and sounds like a gig, guess what, it’s a gig. Health workers, communities and fans come first, we need one rule for everyone.”
Local Sydney pub The Lord Gladstone has responded in similarly tounge-in-cheek fashion by announcing that it will rebrand as ‘The Gladsong’ for a special Sunday service to be held on 23 January.
“It’s been an absolutely frustrating period of time for all venue owners. Right now and over the past couple of years. Once again it feels like our leaders are leaving our poor struggling musicians and artists back in the darkness”, publican Mitchell Crum told Purple Sneakers.
“Live music venues, musicians, pubs and clubs all across the state have been the hardest hit without any support or closure. I can’t say I’m terribly religious though I worship live music. Does that make us exempt?”
The ‘Sunday Service’ will feature $15 jugs of ‘Holy Water’ larger, $10 Bloody Lords, and will have DJs on the tunes in the courtyard all day.
How Has This Been Allowed to Go Ahead?
The reason all this has been allowed to happen is because, technically, religious gatherings are exempt from the new public health orders.
The rules state that “Singing and dancing is not permitted at a hospitality venue, entertainment facility, nightclub, major recreation facility or music festival”.
However, while Hazzard has stated that the order “does not apply to religious services,” there is no mention of religious services in the amendment to the legislation.
While the public health order explicitly does not apply to weddings, it does apply to religious services as these have not been named. Events such as this one would have needed to apply for a special exemption to hold the event, with the gathering being granted one under the pretext of being a religious event.
Hazzard has however said that the order “does apply to major recreation facilities.”
While the event clearly flouts these rules, the NSW Police have ruled out fining the organisers, saying instead that they will work with them “to ensure future compliance.”
However, in his press conference this morning, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has said that he was “completely shocked” by the footage of the event and confirmed that it was under investigation.
“If the legal teams believe that it was in breach of the public health order, then my expectation would be that a fine would be issued,” he said.
The event has not been ordered to stop and will continue to run until Sunday. Hillsong has plans to hold similar events in Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, and Western Australia later in the month.