There's Something About Western Sydney


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.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.