Western Sydney and the 2016 election: the battle for … the best cliché?

Malcolm Turnbull made an early campaign visit to western Sydney with Liberal MP Fiona Scott. AAP/Lukas Coch

As has been the case in the last few Australian federal elections, politicians have focused their early attention in the campaign on “western Sydney” as they seek to display their connection to New South Wales’ fastest-growing region.

Shadow Finance Minister Tony Burke said you must know there is an election on because Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been seen in western Sydney. Changing political and social demographics mean no-one is able to take this complex and diverse region for granted.

Long neglected, western Sydney is now the scene of many recycled funding announcements that aim to capture a region now known for its willingness to dump sitting candidates and flex its political muscle. The once-safe Labor seat of Lindsay, centred on the region of Penrith, is represented by Liberal Fiona Scott on a margin of 3%. But this margin could easily disappear come July 2.

The key local issues

Both Labor leader Bill Shorten and Turnbull are likely to spend quite a bit of time in Western Sydney pressing the flesh and delivering “announceables”. But what issues are most important to the region?

Western Sydney’s diversity means an election promise suitable for one part of the region will be meaningless to other areas. For example, the federal government’s commitment to the Parramatta Light Rail has been well received by residents and workers in the local area. But this important piece of new infrastructure does little for voters in southwest Sydney.

Similarly, the commitment to Badgery’s Creek Airport, which most thought would never be announced, was cheered by many throughout the west. Yet many residents in Blue Mountains and outer Sydney, some of whom moved to the region to escape the noise and rush of the metropolis, will be looking to the ballot box to vent their anger at the planned flightpaths over their houses.

The proposed airport also lacks rail infrastructure. Many local residents see this as a major flaw. They are dreading the congestion that is likely to follow.

The fight over the airport shows each western Sydney seat will be fought on very local issues. Many local residents commute long distances to work, by negotiating Sydney’s clogged motorways or the cramped, unreliable public transport network.

As such, many infrastructure funding announcements are unlikely to result in cheers, coming decades too late. These election promises are more likely to result in sighs of frustration, given how overdue they are.

Best approach missing

So what is the best approach to help western Sydney as its population continues to expand, placing increasing strain on existing resources?

Turnbull’s vision of a “30-minute city” has been widely welcomed by western Sydney. This idea that the maximum commute for residents of a city be limited to 30 minutes is fantastic. But without massive investment, there simply won’t be enough jobs and infrastructure to make this vision feasible.

While the recent federal budget was quite friendly to western Sydney, with funds allocated for light rail and road infrastructure, it will not deliver anything close to the 30-minute city.

An economy in transition is one that requires government support. How exactly will the tens of thousands of workers in the manufacturing sector move into the knowledge economy? This will not happen overnight. Neither major party has explained in detail how they will assist in this transition.

Finally, while much has been said about the need for economic infrastructure, little has been said about social infrastructure. Western Sydney’s unemployment rate remains relatively high compared to the rest of Sydney, and there is a younger age profile who need support for employment and a quality education.

Compounding this, western Sydney remains a prized location for many migrants. There are also pockets of severe disadvantage as local support services struggle to service the increasing demand for assistance.

Too often politicians concentrate on physical infrastructure. They neglect the need to support community programs, including arts-based organisations, that confront this disadvantage by promoting community harmony, dealing with health issues and ensuring a viable workforce.

Neither major party has offered anything substantial on this front.

Western Sydney is a dramatically different region to the one that existed even two elections ago. Residents clearly understand that being in a swinging seat and the federal spotlight is more beneficial than being taken for granted.

As such, the unpredictable nature of voters will continue. While this could be a good thing when it comes to resource allocation, one can only hope it doesn’t lead to politicians in safety vests announcing projects that don’t tackle the region’s social and infrastructure needs. Western Sydney’s residents deserve better.

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