“Western Sydney” embraces such a diverse collection of places, people and problems that Julia Gillard has to nuance her message as she battles to restore some faith among these disillusioned and doubting voters.
Hitting the hustings last night, she talked about the locals’ “dreams”, looked to their aspirations, but also tapped into feelings of inferiority and fear.
“We won’t promise the sun, the moon and the stars – we won’t fill every pothole or catch every crook”, she told cheering supporters in her University of Western Sydney address.
She pledged “five things to make your life easier and improve your future.”
These were to support their jobs “and put Aussie workers first”; deliver high speed broadband to their businesses and homes; get their children a world class education; insure them against disability and keep improving health; and help with the pressures of modern life. She repeated her initiative, announced earlier in the day, of $64 million to tackle “gangs and guns”.
She empathised across borders: as an MP for a seat in Melbourne’s west, she understood first hand “a region’s yearning for recognition and respect.”
“For far too long the community I made my home, the communities I represent, have been the kind of places people hurried through… Being from the west should never be viewed as being second-rate.”
Showcasing the positive, she told the story of a young westie assistant treasurer David Bradbury (a western suburbs MP) had met in Silicon Valley. Denis Mars is “from these streets, who’s founding firms on the other side of the world, who’s making new ideas pay, who’s making his living building new technologies. He is a genuine local success story we can admire. A story of aspiration and achievement”.
Former Labor leader Mark Latham, who has spent half a century in the area, writing in The Australian Financial Review at the weekend, condemned media stereotyping. “Already in the analysis of this year’s federal election we have become the bearded lady along the sideshow ally of Australian politics”, he said.
“The true story of western Sydney is one of economic affluence. People who grew up in fibro shacks now live in double-storey, solid stone homes. … Across the region, families which once manned the production lines of grease-infested factories now own their own businesses or, at a minimum, invest in the stock exchange”.
It was the Hawke-Keating reforms that made the region so much better, Latham argued. But now it was a tougher place to sustain the public’s belief in Labor. Labor had lost western Sydney but the region had also lost Labor “in that it no longer supports the working class template of government regulation, subsidisation and state-led development. If anything, people want government out of their lives… All they ask for is good schools and a health safety net”.
David Burchell, senior lecturer in politics and history at UWS, divides western Sydney into three sub-regions: inner west, close to the city, where the Greens compete with Labor; the middle west, that used to be rusted onto the ALP, and the outer west, with many young families, mortgaged to the hilt, who are swinging voters. Bradbury’s electorate of Lindsay is the iconic “outer west seat”. Labor’s problem is that messages appealing to one area can alienate votes somewhere else, Burchell points out. On an issue such as asylum seekers, the outer west looks for a tough line; inner west voters are sympathetic to those arriving on boats. Inner west people worry about the world getting warmer; those in the outer west are concerned about their electricity bills getting bigger.
By camping out west most of this week, Gillard is making a total nonsense of her claim that in announcing the September 14 election date she wasn’t launching the campaign. Forget the cabinet meeting and prime ministerial paperwork – this feels more like three weeks out from E-Day than Labor “governing”. Ministers are divided about the high profile exercise, some believing that once again credibility has been compromised. A desperate ALP will just wait to see how it all feeds into the national polling due out as parliament reconvenes next week.
If the judgement is that it has gone down badly, that will further harm Gillard’s tarnished authority among her colleagues. Her situation will be made worse if there is a big swing against Labor in Saturday’s Western Australian election.
The trip is already being framed in the leadership context. A ReachTELL automated poll commissioned by Fairfax Media and taken on Thursday in four seats (Werriwa, Chifley, Blaxland and McMahon) found they would be lost in an election held now. But when people were asked about Labor led by Kevin Rudd, Blaxland and Chifley showed winning margins. Burchell is surprised. “The whole Rudd demeanour is not one you think of in terms of Western Sydney.”
The PM is likely to encounter some lip on the street. “She’ll get a lot of grumpy people”, Burchell predicts. “Western Sydney people are known for their frankness”.
But Tony Abbott is taking no chances. He was in the area on Saturday and yesterday and will be on early morning TV from there today. He didn’t try to say he wasn’t campaigning; he did accuse Labor of echoing some Coalition’s law and order policy. Liberal candidates are at railway stations today handing out flyers headed “The 18 broken promises of Rooty Hill”, referring back to a 2010 pre-election forum held there.
Gillard might fall off the trapeze wire, but Abbott and his team were not going to risk being left out of the circus.