5 Mar 2013

There's Something About Western Sydney

By Ben Eltham
Western Sydney captures our political imagination because its issues are familiar - creaky railways, mortgages, migration. But Labor can't afford to turn its back on other marginal seats, writes Ben Eltham
Let me take you through a checklist. Media stunts, preferably in silly outdoor locations? Tick. Billion-dollar announcements? Tick. Stage-managed meet-and-greet events for politicians? Tick. Canberra press gallery travelling around reporting on it all? Tick, tick, tick. And they said this wouldn't be an election campaign.

Of course, no-one really believes that. Julia Gillard's week in western Sydney is nothing if not a campaign. As Bernard Keane noted this week, it's a campaign that seems to be repeating many of the worst aspects of the 2010 campaign, which also focussed unhealthily on western Sydney to the exclusion of the rest of the country.

From Labor's point of view, about the best you could say about it is that it's not going quite as badly as in 2010, when some bizarre own goals (remember "Real Julia"?) and a series of crippling leaks from Kevin Rudd's supporters (some say from Rudd himself) helped to set the tone for a disastrous near-defeat.

You do have to ask: what is it about western Sydney? The region does seem to unduly exercise the minds of major party strategists. Perhaps it's the electoral geography. In many ways, the region seems to have become the Ohio of Australia — a perennial swing seat automatically expected to decide a close election.

The narrative that western Sydney is crucial to Labor's chances has been quickly internalised by many in the media, with little in the way of deeper interrogation. It's true, of course, that western Sydney represents a significant swathe of swing voters and marginal seats. Labor did unusually well in 2010 to hold many of these, so they seem especially vulnerable this time around.

But elections are fought all around the country, and a seat won or lost in western Sydney has exactly the same value as one in suburban Brisbane, or Tasmania, or Western Australia. Labor is in trouble in all of these places too, so even if the ALP holds onto prized seats like Lindsay come September, it's going to need to do equally well in other states if it wants to hold onto government.

Indeed, western Sydney seems to be about more than just the electoral pendulum. There is something about the region that seems to tap into the Australian political psyche. For some reason, the everyday problems of voters in the region seem unusually suited to the sort of vague idealisation often required of politicians and journalists when it comes to thinking about democracy.

Whether it be the migrant experience, the aspirations of home-ownership, the inconvenience of commuting, or the baser motives of refugee anxiety, western Sydney seems to embody all of these social trends for the political classes. To paraphrase Voltaire, if western Sydney did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent it.

Philosophical musings aside, one positive aspect of the western Sydney jamboree is that it has (temporarily, no doubt) attracted attention to some of the biggest and thorniest issues in Australian public policy: transport, urban planning, and the increasingly unequal nature of our cities. While these are of course prevalent in western Sydney, they are in evidence across Australia's major cities. The fact that federal politicians are actually paying attention to them is encouraging in itself — though so far, the attention has not led to any noticeable elevation in the tenor of the public debate.

Yesterday, for instance, we had an announcement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard that her government would be offering New South Wales $1 billion to complete WestConnex, the latest mega-highway project so beloved of that state's transport mandarins.

But the offer came with strings attached — including some significant changes to the current WestConnex plan, such as the stipulation that the road now travel all the way into the city. WestConnex is in fact meant only to connect to the Port Botany precinct, catering to the truck traffic that moves between the two destinations. It only took a couple of hours for Premier Barry O'Farrell to bat away the government's offer, claiming that because it would add between $5 and $8 billion to the cost of WestConnex (already costed at between $10 and $13 billion), it was a pretty poor deal for the state taxpayer.

Missing from the debate entirely was any discussion of rail, surely as important an issue as a highway project for the many citizens of western Sydney that are not currently served by Sydney's creaking metropolitan rail infrastructure.

Over the past decade, Sydney's rail network has been the subject of a bizarre series of grand plans, and equally grand cancellations, with the result that little has been done to upgrade a system that carries millions of Sydney-siders around the sprawling metropolis daily. According to the 2001 Christie report into a long-term strategic plan for rail in the Sydney basin, "in the last 50 years there have been almost no track amplifications — the equivalent of converting two-lane roads into multiple lane roads — on the metropolitan network".

Western Sydney's public transport lag is in fact symptomatic of broader issues across Australia's cities. A combination of factors — economic, demographic and social — have combined to allow urban development to far outrun the provision of services to these new suburbs. To continue with rail, for example, between 1970 and 2010 only 36 new railways stations were built in Australia's five major capital cities more than 15km out from the CBD — less than one a year. Sydney built just three outer suburban train stations in that 40-year stretch. Melbourne built none.

The story is as old as Australia, really; throughout the history of Australian urban development, the dream of home ownership has generally been detached and suburban in nature, and the location of the dream has generally been on the edge of the metropolis. As our cities have grown, so has the mirage receded outward, until we are now building new housing 50 or even 100 kilometres away from city centres in what amount to satellite cities such as Campbelltown or Melton or the Sunshine Coast. The story is depressingly familiar to those who have read Hugh Stretton's marvellous 1970 book on Australian urbanism, Ideas for Australian Cities.

The reasons are many and complex, but they boil down to money. Scared off by the deep debt difficulties they found themselves in the early 1990s, Australia's states have stopped building large-scale transport infrastructure for the past two decades. This is particularly true of New South Wales and Victoria, where both Liberal and Labor governments decided that budget surpluses and paying down debt was more important than investing in long-term infrastructure like new rail links.

As a result, vast swathes of our outer suburbs simply lack appropriate transport infrastructure, especially for those citizens without access to cars. While younger professionals are responding by moving to flats in the inner city where they don't need a car, a residual, increasingly disadvantaged minority is left stuck on the outer rim, far from jobs and increasingly prone to the combination of mortgage stress and petrol price sensitivity that Griffith University researcher Jago Dodson has measured with his so-called "VAMPIRE index".

Because the high Australian dollar has helped moderate the price of petrol in recent years, we've heard precious little about the vulnerability of places like western Sydney to oil spikes, but the problem hasn't gone away — as yesterday's announcement shows, governments remain locked into a car-centric view of suburban transport that is storing up big troubles for future decades. Similarly, mortgage rates are currently at very low levels, but when the Reserve Bank starts to hike them up again, the pain will be felt first in the outer suburbs, where home-owners have sometimes taken on far more housing debt that they can responsibly manage.

But we're in campaign mode now, so future decades and long-term policy problems are taking a back seat to the day-to-day cut and thrust of competing promises and strategies. And in New South Wales right now, one of the key political issues is Labor itself, especially former state minister Eddie Obeid and his starring role in Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings.

Given the scale of the corruption alleged against Obeid and his senior mates in the former New South Wales Labor government, it's not surprising that many Labor voters in western Sydney are reconsidering their support for the ALP. No amount of federal campaigning is going to stop that.

There is one positive for the Gillard Government of the increased campaign tempo, though: Tony Abbott is being forced to answer questions. And that's beginning to force some errors from the Opposition Leader, as happened this week, when he struggled to explain how his government would simultaneously rescind the carbon tax but keep the compensation tied to it.

Labor will be hoping that a long, grinding campaign can wear down the Opposition and its combative leader, allowing the government to slowly claw back electoral support. It really does appear as though we're in for another six months of campaigning.

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davidstephens
Posted Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 15:59

David Stephens

The Ohio analogy is neat but could work either way: despite commentators making much of Ohio bellwether status throughout 2012, statewide polls showed Obama comfortably ahead throughout.

cmardon
Posted Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 17:31

Ben,
You have mentioned in passing about the threat of petrol price sensitivity, especially for people stuck in the outer suburbs. The situation is actually more serious than that because the federal government is sitting on a "secret" report called Transport energy futures: long term oil supply trends and projections by Dr David Gargett, Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), Report 117, 2009.

Since then, I have come across another more recent report from Martin Ferguson’s DRET (should that be DIRT?) called National Energy Security Assessment 2011. Naturally, it considers the oil supply situation, but guess what? Like most other reports from his department, he sees “no problem” with future oil supplies and makes NO MENTION of the BITRE report. In fact, it contradicts it.

This seems to be in line with the propaganda from the industry and the business press that US shale oil and other sources of unconventional oil will save us from the threat of Peak Oil. The reality is that there has been a plateau since 2004 rather than a distinct peak. The BITRE report suggests that oil from the dominant producing region (the Middle East Gulf States) has already plateaued and will not rise significantly. Production from that region is expected to decline rapidly from 2040, taking global oil production with it.

The report does say that Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan heavy oil and deepwater oil may extend the plateau in global oil production out to 2016, but it is expected to decline from 2017 (give or take a couple of years).

If this is true, there will be no time to rebuild the infrastructure and the whole road freight system will be affected by rising fuel prices. That will affect us all!

Hardy
Posted Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 18:12

"There is ONE POSITIVE for the Gillard Government of the increased campaign tempo, though: Tony Abbott is being forced to answer questions."
Not very likely unless his protective MSM/ABC shield suffers a substantial breakdown or some "free media" journo's are starting to do their job in the interest of the nation.
I wonder how many other "news outlets" have covered this epic saga of mediocrity:
http://www.independentaustralia.net/2013/politics/joe-has-no-idea/

This user is a New Matilda supporter. DrGideonPolya
Posted Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 09:30

The core problem with pro-coal, pro-gas, pro-oil, anti-environment, pro-war, pro-Zionist, US lackey, anti-Arab anti-Semitic, Islamophobic Labor is its remorseless and profound dishonesty and incompetence that are well illustrated by its spin-driven attempts to claw back the Western Sydney vote.

1. There is a worsening climate crisis. Indeed it is estimated that world has only 5 years at current greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution rates before it reaches the terminal GHG pollution budget that must not be exceeded if we are to avoid a catastrophic 2C temperature rise (see "Doha climate change inaction. Only 5 years left to act", MWC News: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/23373-gideonpolya-climate-change.html ).

Yet under Labor, subsidies for fossil fuel burning reached $12 billion per year. Australia's Domestic plus Exported GHG pollution has risen and will continue to rise enormously under the Carbon Tax (see section G, "2011 climate change course": https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/2011-climate-change-course ), 10,000 Australians die annually from pol;utants from fossil fuel burning (see "Australian carbon burning-related deaths": https://sites.google.com/site/yarravalleyclimateactiongroup/2011-carbon-... ) and instead of rail PM Gillard offers more billions for dirty and deadly road transport.

2. The Carbon Tax is a Labor fraud and the ETS even more so (involving the utterly fraudulent proposition that the Australian Government has the right to sell licences to pollute the one common atmosphere of all countries). When top US climate scientist Dr James Hansen (NASA's GISS and 82-Nobel -Laureate Columbia University) proposes a Carbon Tax he means taxing coal, gas and oil at the mine gate and giving the tax directly to all taxpayers (Google: "It's Possible To Avert The Climate Crisis"). Absurdly, pro-gas, pro-coal Labor's Carbon Tax instead taxes industrial and domestic consumers of fossil fuels (giving 90% of the money back in a largely pointless "futile cycle") and only taxes fossil fuel producers in the areas of transport (already highly and absurdly subsidized) and fugitive emissions (leakage of methane from mines, reticulation etc). However the Labor Government understates gas leakage as 0.12% (rather than the science-based estimates of 3.3%-7.9% of gas produced) and under-estimates the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane as 21 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2) (whereas it is actually 105 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (GHG) on a 20 year time frame and considering aerosol impacts). Labor thus understates the Carbon Tax obligations from fugitive emissions by a factor of 137-329, collecting merely $21 million annually rather than the science-indicated $3-7 billion each year (see "Australia's Carbon Tax scandal": http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/23026-gideonpolya-carbon-tax.html ).

3. Western Sydney has a large population of refugees, descendants of refugees, Arabs, and Muslims. Yet the pro-war, pro-Zionist, anti-Arab anti-Semitic, human rights-violating Labor Government is complicit in a Muslim Holocaust and Muslim Genocide involving 12 million Muslim deaths (50% of CHILDREN) from violence or war-imposed deprivation since 1990 in the Zionist-promoted US War on Muslims, 9 million such Muslim deaths in the Zionist-promoted War on Terror and over 20 million Muslim refugees (see "Muslim Holocaust Muslim Genocide": https://sites.google.com/site/muslimholocaustmuslimgenocide/ ).

The Labor Government is further involved in horrendously abusing Muslim refugees and Tamil refugees while being complicit in traitorous Australian Zionists like Ben Zygier (tortured to death by the Israelis) spying against Australia and going to Apartheid Israel and tasering, shooting, kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing, robbing, bombing, and killing Arabs, Australians and relatives of Australians in the Middle East.

4. And then there is Labor-backed Educational Apartheid that means that the vast majority of children in Western Sydney are brutally excluded from a decent education, university, top universities and top courses (see "Educational Apartheid": https://sites.google.com/site/educationalapartheid/).

Sensible voters in Western Sydney will vote 1 Green and put Labor last (the Coalition are just as bad but unlike Labor have not actually betrayed decent Labor voters or values).

Indeed the people of Western Sydney should demand that pro-war, pro-Zionist, US lackey Labor MPs are arraigned before the International Criminal Court for KNOWING complicity in deadly war crimes and gross human rights abuses inflicted upon Muslims and Asians (conversely, Coalition MPs could argue for themselves that they didn't know any better).

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.

jennyn
Posted Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 11:01

JennyN
Why Western Sydney? Could it be that it is close to Canberra? Canberra public servants tend to go to Sydney more to check out how policies are working because it is nearby (and then they can tack on a weekend at own expense to do something interesting)
Roads? In Victoria the state government has pretty much lost all expertise on rail and the state Transport Department is dominated by those with roads expertise. (A freeway costing billions can almost always find financing but a new rail line or extending an existing one is almost always too hard)
@cmardon and Ferguson's energy paper. A couple of years ago his energy advisory committee membership was posted on his Department's website. Can't find it now but overwhelming its membership was fossil fuel companies with a tokenistic representation from renewables/alternative energy experts.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. dazza
Posted Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 14:45

Does anyone actually know if La Gillartine has ever travelled on a TRAIN. Does she know what they are? Since entering Parliament, she would have travelled by Car or Aircraft, never by train. Does anyone of her Caucus ever travel by train? Do any one of them live in suburbia, and use any sort of Public Transport? I very much doubt it.
Same applies to The Mad Monk and his mob.
Maybe her very expensive 447 Visa adviser, straight from Tony Blair, knows something of the London Underground?
Here in Queensland, we are about to lose all our Long Distance Passenger Trains, as a result of the advice of Economic Rationalist Peter Costello, I would imagine. It is some 25 years since I have travelled on an Electric Train on Suburban Brisbane rails, and I can say that really enjoyed the trips, but now they seem to be always suffering from what must be lack of Infrastructure Maintenance, lack of money to the job they are required to do.
Maybe the WA and SA Governments have some interest in Public Transport by either Light or Heavy Rail, but it seems that Victoria, NSW and Queensland have decided that their mates in Big Business can make more money out of more and more Toll Roads, Highways to Nowhere. False of course, they daily seem to be getting into more and more financial troubles, because of badly done surveys of traffic needs, or just maybe inflated numbers for their own purposes (invariably nefarious).
Just listening to ABCNews, suggested that most of the 'workers' of Western Sydney are now Sub-Contractors or Contractors, most definitely NOT, say, manufacturing workers, as they may once have been when this was Labor territory. In other words, now 'aspirational', and much more likely to be Tory voters. I do not see how Labor, unless it goes even further Right than it has already in an effort to attract these people to vote for them, can ever get them to vote for a Party hat has no attraction to them whatsoever, now no longer even having any Social or Ethical aspects that may appeal to some less Ultra Conservative voters.
Which gives me the thought that La Giilartine and her convoy of minders and PR hacks are wasting their time. They would be much better going back to being a REAL Labor Party, one with Progressive policies, and taking less Conservative electorates away from the Tories. Remember the Doctor's Wives, so called? Very much doubt that any of that covey would ever vote Labor these days if it does not change much to the better, something impossible under La Gillartine.
There are just not enough Old Labor voters left in Australia to save Labor's bacon.
They had better start getting used to being very much a third rate Political Party, one vying for the votes of Red Necks and Thugs and all those Martin Ferguson Mates, against the LNP.

GrantD
Posted Friday, March 8, 2013 - 15:56

There is no argument that the electorate (Western Sydney & beyond) have lost confidence in Gillard and Labor, if you want to know why check out this graphic

http://goo.gl/JWuCW

Until Labor can distance it self from the endemic corruption in the Unions people won't trust them - the O'Bede saga doesn't help their cause either.

GideonPolya -if you want to pin 20 million Muslim deaths onto Labor (or Libs) I think you need to relocate to another country, at least pull your head out of the sand - why do you think people are exiting Muslim countries - people don't want to live under Muslim governments- parties like Labor have welcomed Muslim people and it has cost them votes. Snap out of it mate, go in live under a Muslim regime, or at least move to Auburn - you 'Latte socialists' make me sick.