It was fabulous and it was funny but New Mardi Gras’ season launch last Friday nearly turned into a public relations nightmare.

HIV/AIDS charity PLWHA was informed last Thursday its volunteers would be unable to fundraise at the launch -“ which had been the charity’s largest annual fundraising opportunity for the past 10 years. Subsequent community outrage led to a last-minute change of heart.

PLWHA (People Living With HIV/AIDS) executive officer Geoff Honnor said he was told last month his organisation would not be allowed to do a bucket collection at the launch because New Mardi Gras needed to collect money for itself.

But a New Mardi Gras spokesperson said PLWHA were informed of this decision last year and that the message must have been miscommunicated.

New Mardi Gras reconfirmed its position at a board meeting on Wednesday night.

We’re pretty dependent on [the launch fundraiser], so you can imagine we weren’t thrilled to be told in early January it wouldn’t be happening, Honnor said. Also I was immensely irritated to be told we’d already agreed to it when actually we hadn’t.

On Thursday Honnor emailed PLWHA volunteers to tell them the collection was off, which was the trigger for a fairly significant avalanche of anger and hurt and outrage and bewilderment, he said. Obviously the email went far beyond those to whom it was addressed.

By Friday afternoon NMG -“ which Honnor said was obviously concerned by the very negative feedback they were getting -“ agreed to allow PLWHA to collect at the launch for one last time. NMG also supplied PLWHA with a number of volunteers to help with the collection.

Of the money collected, 70 percent ($4,000) went to PLWHA and the rest to NMG. Last year the takings were split 50/50.

Honnor said he understood New Mardi Gras’ position. Mardi Gras has the right to look at its own financial position so Mardi Gras doesn’t get to a stage where it’s not financially viable, because clearly then the opportunities for all of us aren’t there any more, he said.

New Mardi Gras co-chair Mark Orr said the organisation was committed to finding another event for PLWHA fundraising in 2006 and beyond.

I think people need to realise Mardi Gras is not a cash cow. The finances are still tight, Orr said of the decision to stop other organisations collecting at launch. Whilst we’ve had a couple of successful seasons it doesn’t mean we’ve got millions of dollars in the bank.

New Mardi Gras was also criticised for turning under-18s away from the launch.

Orr and fellow NMG co-chair Steph Sands said it was unfortunate but unavoidable some under-18s were turned away from the launch, as the police decided to enforce the licensing regulations this year.

As the launch was a fully-licensed event, under-18s were only permitted to enter with an adult.

We had to be good corporate citizens and abide by the licensing laws, which say if you’re under 18 you have to be accompanied by an adult, Orr said.

You have to balance that with trying to have an event that’s as inclusive as possible. It’s a shame we couldn’t be all-embracing, but the rules are the rules.

Sands said she hoped it would be different in 2006. We need to look into it and make sure it doesn’t occur next year. Even if it means we have a licensed area and an unlicensed area, she said.

When the fenced-off area holding the launch became full -“ estimates put the crowd at being between 10,000 and 12,000 -“ some punters were turned away. As a result NMG is looking for a larger venue next year.

Sands agreed the lengthy bar queues were also a problem to be rectified in 2006.

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