Addicted to corporate dollars, Sydney’s Mardi Gras is selling its soul

The mirror balls in the Hordern Pavilion were still spinning in the wee hours of last Sunday morning when the griping began about this year's Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

And who could blame them?

Thousands turned out for this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.Credit:Dean Sewell

Trying to squeeze 10,000 ticket-holders, each paying about $200 a pop for the official after-party, into a venue which could accommodate around half that meant things were bound to get ugly.

And boy, did they, with even NSW Fair Trading confirming it was investigating as talk of a class action reverberated.

There was no irony lost on me when I saw the Sydney Swans float at the parade. Our beloved Swans are one of the reasons why so many people were locked out of the Hordern last Saturday night.

Thanks to the Berejiklian government, the Swans are in the midst of fitting out the neighbouring Royal Hall Of Industries as its new headquarters. For decades the Hall of Industries was the other major venue for Mardi Gras, but it is unlikely to be available next year either.

Mardi Gras' new CEO Albert Kruger told me it was unclear what form the re-purposed Hall will eventually take. "The after-party as we once knew it will not be the same again with the changes at the RHI, and we still don't know what sort of space we will end up having access to," he said.

Two hour queues, filthy toilets and lack of access to the headline acts is not good enough. And let's be clear – Dua Lipa is a great pop star but she is no gay icon like Mardi Gras patron saints Cher and Kylie. And I'm sorry, but does anyone actually dance to Sam Smith ballads?

As for charging another $100 to stand in a public laneway at a "recovery party" the next day, our community event feels more like a cash cow than ever (especially when we once did that for free).

For those watching at home, the SBS live telecast was underwhelming – too many comperes self-promoting and too much inane commentary rather than focussing on the parade and providing insight into what it all means.

Dua Lipa, centre, was one of the headline acts at the Mardi Gras after-party.Credit:AAP

But possibly most disconcerting of all are the corporate sponsor floats with their vanilla themes. Our once-mischievous Mardi Gras seems to have unwittingly fallen victim to its own success.

In its early years the annual parade and party was pretty much an exclusive gay and lesbian fringe event, deliberately intended to push boundaries. Those "in the know" talked about going to the celebrations, but always in hushed tones.

Mardi Gras has since ballooned into a two-week festival with hundreds of diverse events, from Fair Day to pool parties, and it has been embraced by wider Sydney, with 500,000 people – many of them heterosexual – lining Oxford Street, wearing $2-shop rainbow flag outfits and doused in glitter.

Even my bush driver wished me "Happy Mardi Gras" last Saturday morning.

Of course this is a wonderful social evolution, but it wasn't always that way.

All smiles: One of the paraders from this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.Credit:Dean Sewell

Mardi Gras has its origins as a peaceful protest march in 1978 that turned ugly when NSW Police threw many of the participants in cells … after beating up several of them.

Homosexuality wasn't decriminalised in NSW until 1984. Yes, 1984. Gay hate crimes continue to this day.

Last Saturday night I stood at Taylor Square watching the parade, as I have done since the late 1980s, this time enjoying the largesse of Destination NSW, one of the key sponsors.

It was all very civilised, with canapes and waiters carrying trays of bubbly. They even had seats and a private portaloo – a marked step up from my old milk crate days, or stepping over Molly Meldrum reclining in a gutter, wearing a pair of undies on his head (true story).

Rather than the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence poking fun at institutional hypocrisy, these days it's floats promoting Woolworths, Qantas, ANZ, The Star casino, Carlton United Breweries, Vodafone, law firm Minter Ellison and cosmetics giant L'Oreal.

Shopping trolleys and lippy … spare me.

While their big-budget, glittering floats look fabulous, they are politically impotent when it comes to making a meaningful statement that resonates with the core of what Mardi Gras once was.

Not so the brave souls who created the giant red-back spider with Scott Morrison's head on it to comment on the controversial religious freedoms bill, which many gay and lesbian Australians – me included – deeply fear.

But be careful not to protest too loudly or you might be dragged out of the parade by police, as happened this year when the Liberal Party float – architects of the dreaded marriage equality plebiscite – was targeted.

Our floats were never intended to be advertising billboards. But corporate dollars are now a drug to which Mardi Gras – a not-for-profit organisation – has become addicted.

"To provide the production values that the community has come to expect, we need corporate money," Kruger argues, adamant Mardi Gras is "not simply two weeks of 'pink-washing'."

According to the 2019 Mardi Gras annual report government and corporate sponsorship of the event amounted to $3.1 million in cash, and a further $1.25 million in contra.

Its economic impact is around 10 times that.

Clearly, it's good business to get on a float, but have we sold our soul along the way?

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