Monday, 4 March 2013

How to Pander or: What have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

A typical western Sydney road scene
The Final Frontier © 2003

It is an unfortunate circumstance that any Melburnian or Brisbanite with a passing interest in politics finds themselves as familiar with the location and layout of the Rooty Hill RSL as any west-Sydneysider. Should a Northern Territorian or West Australian wish to see a particular policy from either major party at the upcoming federal election, they would do well to ensure it aligns with the hopes, dreams and prejudices of those who inhabit the RSL known as the "Vegas of the West" because as far as electoral maths is concerned, Western Sydney is the final frontier. 

Both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have begun their respective “charm” offensives in western Sydney with each party arguing it is they who represent true western street cred. Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne argued on morning television that Tony Abbott “basically” lives in western Sydney. Not being a Sydneysider, I’m not certain which parts of Abbott’s Northern Beaches electorate cross into western Sydney; Google Maps says none. Similarly, Greg Combet and Doug Cameron are pushing their "Westie" credentials, perhaps more convincingly than a member of the South Australian Liberal establishment. Alas, the upshot is that we’re all western Sydneysiders now. We’re all working families. We’re all Aussie Battlers.

The next few days will no doubt be a masterclass in populist politics. Parramatta councillor and former Lord Mayor Paul Garrard says his community is concerned about “boat people”, the carbon tax and border security. Seemingly an odd combination for a region some 28km inland and 5,300km from Christmas Island. When Julia Gillard spoke of “respecting the anxieties” held by members of the community about refugees in the lead-up to the 2010 federal election, it was towards western Sydney she was directing her remarks, essentially sanctioning the parochial prejudices of suburban bigots. Instead of a leader doing something radical like “leading”, saying “there is nothing to fear from those who come to our country in search of a new and better life”, we got “I respect your bigoted fears, even though they are not rooted in any type of evidence. Vote Labor”. Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has proven himself adept at fanning the race flames in the past few days, proposing residents be notified should asylum-seekers be placed in their street. What existing issues this policy would prevent or ensure has not been adequately answered by anyone in the Coalition. Expect to see this policy thought-bubble disappear shortly.  

Last week, Triple J’s Hack braved western Sydney to ask voters how they felt about the upcoming visits by their political leaders. The attitudes towards Labor and Julia Gillard in particular were less than favourable, with one resident claiming the Prime Minister has ruined everything and given local jobs away to “all the ones she’s bringing in from the other countries”. A sales rep who stopped in at the local chicken shop was asked what federal politicians could do to win his vote, to which he responded, “probably give us some money”. Voters such as these are the new front line in electoral politics. They are far angrier than the Howard Battlers that preceded them, their fears and prejudices reinforced continually by politicians assuring voters they “understand” their “cost of living pressures”, fears about foreign labour, drive-by shootings etc. Never mind that on any empirical measure, the cost of living is historically low and average household income among the highest globally. Crime is also down or steady in western Sydney, which is clearly why $64 million is needed to establish another tough-on-drugs organisation. Oh, and dare not, as John Howard did in 2007, tell an unappreciative electorate they have never been better off. Brought up on a diet of Baby Bonuses and Private Health Care Rebates et al, these voters have found it difficult to adjust to the leaner economic times sans pork barrel. Ask many in this group what their primary concerns are and the answers will invariably involve the words “boat”, “carbon”, “cost”, “pressures” and “tax”. When individuals are asked to specify how these concerns have impacted on them, their answers are as vague as Coalition policy speeches. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

But why all this attention lavished on one region in one state? In general terms, New South Wales is crucial to any federal election win. The state is made up of 48 electoral divisions, which is almost one-third of the total seats on offer in the House of Representatives (that’s the green chamber in the big house with the flagpole where government is formed). Some 14 of these seats are located in western Sydney and of these seats and 12 are currently held by Labor. The reason why we now see a week-long western Sydney slumber party is because nine of these Labor seats are held on margins of less than 10 per-cent, which on current polling would be up for grabs by the Liberal party. The loss of even a handful of these seats would be devastating for Labor, likely costing them government and consigning them to the opposition benches for many years. 

Not pictured: bewildered commuters © 2008
Another interesting side-effect of high-profile federal campaigning at the local level is the virtual bypassing of state governments, especially those of the opposite political persuasion. Federal politicians now routinely campaign on roads, law and order, health and education; areas that were historically (and constitutionally) the purview of state governments. But the emaciation of the states’ revenue raising capacity coupled with the increasing outlay demands as the primary service provider in their jurisdictions means states are ever more reliant on the whims and promises of federal governments. It is one of the absurdities of Australian political life that we see a national leader, whose seat is in western Melbourne, committing billions of federal dollars in the lead-up to a federal election to ease the commute of a few in western Sydney. To borrow and re-contextualise a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, all politics is yokel.

So, that’s it. We’re all "Westies" now. We are all battlers. We are all concerned about the sky-rocketing cost of living, even though empirical data shows otherwise; we are all entitled to our piece of pork from the government to ensure a “fair go”, but will complain to Alan Jones if they dare increase taxes; we want to raise our working families in a safe and secure society, but we’ll be damned if some queue-jumper wants to do the same. For better or for worse, we are all now tied to the anxieties and attitudes of the Rooty Hill RSL, a place seen by the pollsters as a microcosm of Australian suburban angst. I leave you now with the dulcet tones of Paul Keating, fielding talkback calls the morning after the Mabo decision was handed down. What would you give to see a similar performance from a political leader today? (The good stuff starts at 2:40 in for those of you on mobiles)

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