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Trouble in the battler heartland

16 Nov 2007
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The coalition has been fatally careless in Western Sydney, writes DAVID BURCHELL in this special report for APO.

AT AROUND this point in the last federal election campaign I reported for APO from the federal Coalition’s unlikely new stronghold in Sydney’s outer west. Traditionally Western Sydney has been Labor territory, but since 1996 Sydney’s outer ring - from the north-west around to the city’s southern fringes - has shifted gradually but decisively into the conservative camp. At the same time, it seems, that inner-city bohemians were getting hip to Paul Keating and his manifold policy works, outer-suburbanites were storing up a kind of suppressed rage, compounded out of financial exasperation (those phenomenal interest rates, which still linger in the memory), cultural ressentiment (what’s wrong with being a “real” Aussie, anyway?) and a kind of practical-minded suburban impatience with all those grand but ultimately ineffectual symbolic brushstrokes.

By 2004, however, the Keating spectre had begun to fade and Labor had come to seem more palatable again - much as kids of my age had resolved to return to the beach a year or two after the film Jaws had done its dash. Labor’s meteoric boy-leader, Mark Latham - then in his suburban-bloke stage - had been reaching out again to the nation’s serried ranks of home-buyers, bathroom-renovators and soccer-mums. As APO’s worthy editor had judged, it seemed worthwhile to test the mood of Western Sydney.

In the event, there was no especially arresting story to tell. Gauging from the buoyant local statistics and the local vibe, it seemed unlikely that these seats were about to rebel against the government (or anybody else) in the near future. The local MPs were popular and ideologically unencumbered. Life was good, and the government hadn’t done much to offend the solid burghers of outer-suburbia. But it was also possible to scent a marine odour of fragility about the Coalition’s fortunes in this part of the world - something like the smell which forewarns seasoned sailors of a still-distant storm, perhaps. There was a sense that people were wedded not so much to the Coalition as to the cicada-echoing calm and tranquillity that had marked the preceding eight years of Australian neighbourhood life. This sort of allegiance is inevitably ephemeral.

And so, by way of approximating a conclusion left hanging tantalisingly in the air, I wound up in the following auspicious but tentative manner: “So long as interest-rates do stay low, the government doesn’t really have to project forward-looking policies for the new communities springing up here like fields of lucerne. But they may not stay low for much longer. The pendulum may not have swung, yet. But if it were the needle of a barometer it might be wobbling, signaling stormy weather ahead.”

It wasn’t much of a prediction. But to the extent that it was one, it might be said to have borne fruit.

In the three years since, a wave of redistributions - occasioned by the historic decline of New South Wales as Australia’s demographic hub - have reshaped the electoral map of Western Sydney, dimming somewhat that once bright star in the Coalition’s electoral firmament. Macarthur, until recently an outer-suburban Sydney seat suspended between the twin satellite towns of Campbelltown and Camden, has become more a rural seat than an urban one, and has slipped further onto the government’s side of the electoral ledger. The seat of Greenway, which was once centred upon the austere Western Sydney metropolis of Blacktown, has drifted ever further westwards, so that it now sprawls across the orchards and grazing-fields of Richmond.

Struggletown neighbourhoods of Parramatta have shuffled northwards into the prime minister’s once safe northern electorate of Bennelong. And the celebrated seat of Lindsay - where Jackie Kelly became the PM’s anointed missionary for the values of the “Howard’s battlers” after 1996 - is now fastened more firmly than ever onto the striving “pram city” of Penrith and its industrial environs. Finally, the seat of Macquarie, which previously yoked together solid farming folks with the boho villages of the Blue Mountains, has rattled shakily further westwards along the railway line, passing the old mining city of Lithgow on its journey to Bathurst, the old home-town of once local member Ben Chifley.

The electoral effect of these changes is mixed. Parramatta - the most marginal seat in Sydney - has become nominally Liberal, even though most observers expect it to swing smoothly back into Labor territory. Greenway and Macarthur have become solid Liberal strongholds, each with a margin of around eleven percent. Macquarie has lurched from being a fairly comfortable Liberal seat to becoming a nominal Labor one. And Lindsay’s Liberal tiara has slipped askew once more, putting it back into marginal status.

In short, there’s no single political story to be told here (not that there ever was). And yet across the region that marine smell has undoubtedly grown a little stronger and brinier. When John Howard launched some of his campaign policies in Penrith three years ago, he was sporting a triumphant, fox-like smile. “This is a great way to begin the second part of the campaign, here in territory the Liberal Party thought it could never have,” he began, to exultant applause. In front of him on the lectern was the succinct but effective (and specific) slogan: “Keeping Interest Rates Low.” This time around when the PM visited Penrith his mood was altogether more saturnine, and the slogan on the curtains (“Go for Growth,” with those mystifying inverted commas) was still upbeat, but decidedly vaguer. Mr Howard even suffered one of those bad auguries that seem to have dogged his campaign, when a retreating camera crew unwittingly knocked a female spectator unconscious in front of him. (He stood stock still, looking a little bewildered, much as Julius Caesar must have looked when the seer made that well-known comment about the Ides of March.)

Indeed, across Western Sydney as a whole, there’s a curiously ill-starred atmosphere to the Liberals’ campaign effort. The sitting Labor member in Parramatta, the redoubtable Julie Owens, has to secure a swing towards her simply to hold her seat, let alone strengthen her grip on it. And the suits at Liberal head office (after an eternity dithering over it) must have thought her opponent - former Navy man and self-professed unionist Colin Robinson - was a clever riposte to Labor’s thunderings about the dangers of WorkChoices. Yet local journalists can’t seem to track down Robinson to save their lives. At a recent media event where Robinson failed to appear, anxious scribes button-holed the Greens candidate to see if she knew Robinson’s mobile phone number.

Three years ago Jackie Kelly’s face was plastered across Lindsay much as Greta Garbo’s must have been across the cinema hoardings of Los Angeles in the Golden Age of Hollywood. This time around her little-known former staffer, Karen Chijoff, has been reduced to hand-painting the improvised slogan “A True Local Girl” above her grey-hued photographs at the entrance to the motorway. Three years ago Pat Farmer, the easy-going former marathon-runner turned celebrity MP, was ambling around Macarthur offering local improvements much as Jesus offered loaves and fishes. This time he’s trading barbs with Labor candidate and local carpenter Nick Bleasdale, whom he accuses of pork-barrelling the electorate with grand offers of renovations to the local football stadium - offers Farmer loftily refuses to match. Disputes like this make Farmer appear defensive and governmental. This is not necessarily a good look in what has become a more or less rural seat, the kind of seat where roads funding is one of the most talked-about issues, and where Canberra shenanigans can seem like a distraction. Farmer’s double-digit margin ought to be unassailable, yet local newspaper editors are scrambling to find election news, unsettled by the thought of an unheralded Labor win.

Nationally Labor’s public-relations gurus like to accuse the government of desperation. Yet the Liberal campaign in Western Sydney doesn’t feel desperate so much as incoherent, as if somebody crucial to events had unaccountably left the campaign script in their other suit. This may be a product of the party’s evident bewilderment at the national level: even after twelve months, the penny still doesn’t seem to have dropped that the electorate might dare to un-elect a government it doesn’t actually hate. By the same token, it may equally be a product of the party’s well-publicised Sydney problem. The nation’s largest city still unaccountably fails to generate many candidates of quality for the Liberals, and too many local branches still appear to savour of knitted tea-cosies and doughy scones. It is as if Sydney is a condundrum to which the state Liberal Party still struggles to find the solution.

Or else the answer might be a combination of these two factors - a combination woven together by the person of the PM himself. It’s often been noted in Liberal circles that while John Howard is a quintessential Sydney boy (self-made, unpretentious, ferociously unsentimental), and an undeniably popular figure in his home city, he has played virtually no role in the tenor and conduct of the state Liberal Party - an organisation which still too often proceeds as if its core business were the fighting of internecine ideological disputes. (At times seems almost as if the denizens of Young Labor had mysteriously switched camps and moved back into their parents’ old homes on the city’s North Shore.) Why, they ask, has Howard not taken the time in eleven years to remake the organisation that preselects him? The simple answer may be that Howard (the once-despised ugly duckling of the NSW Liberals) has had little relish for the task.

Were elections to be won and lost by the numbers of campaign posters blooming along our front lawns, Labor would be a shoo-in across much of Western Sydney. Of course, anyone with a sense of political history knows this is a perilous equation. The older among APO’s readers will no doubt still recall that fantastical election campaign of 1975, when many youthful supporters sincerely believed Labor would win, on the somewhat harebrained logic that there was - or ought to be - a correspondence between the size of your rallies and the size of your vote. (Then as now, marijuana and politics make an unstable combination.)

Equally striking on streets from Penrith through to Lithgow are those ubiquitous ACTU “Your Rights at Work” posters, totems which have assumed for old-time Labor stalwarts an equivalent significance to the “Not Happy, John” bumper stickers of disillusioned liberals. It’s still not absolutely clear how many votes WorkChoices will deliver to Labor in electorates like Macarthur and Lindsay. These are areas where the majority of voters still work with their hands, to be sure - but where increasingly they do so as contractors or on their own account. Perhaps, here as elsewhere, the effect of the issue will be more indirect. It’s not so much that most people in the outer suburbs believe that their own conditions are under threat from the government’s IR legislation, as that they fear those of others will be threatened, or are being threatened, elsewhere. (After all, empathy and fellow-feeling are for most people tied up with a sense of shared conditions, rather than exotic otherness.) And, more than this, that they fear the ideological and confrontational tone which WorkChoices has introduced into political argument. John Howard spent ten years painstakingly untying himself from the bonds of his radical past. It seems to have taken not much more than a year for the threads to be re-tied.

The Coalition until recently prided itself on its attentiveness to the needs and opinions of the citizens of its new-found outer suburban prizes. It hasn’t made enemies of these people, by any means. But it has become fatally careless with them. And Labor, for all its own self-immersedness and disconnectedness, may well be about to reap the benefit.

In memoriam Norman Mailer, 1923-2007: a truly atrocious novelist but a fine political journalist.

David Burchell teaches in Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, and is associate editor of APO. He is author of Western Horizon: Sydney’s Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics (Scribe, 2003).

 

 

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2007
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