When it became common knowledge that the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, would have a "week-long" stay in western Sydney, every one seemed somewhat amused. I mean, if you have digs in Kirribilli, why would you choose to spend a week "out west"?
The Opposition Leader’s "spoiler tactics" quickly followed Gillard’s announcement, with Tony Abbott announcing he would also visit western Sydney.
As the Prime Minister and Opposition leader quickly descended on the poor, unsuspecting locals, the media circus quickly followed. The tone by a number of commentators was insightful. Even those I respect, such as Fran Kelly and Tony Eastley, spoke about western Sydney like it was a distant country, while Crikey’s Amber Jamieson joked about "beige rooms".
Every news outlet started looking for western Sydney experts: what can you tell us about the people of Sydney? What do people in western Sydney think about the Prime Minister’s visit? Why is western Sydney no longer ALP heartland?
Tony Abbott wanted to remind us that the people of western Sydney are being overrun by asylm seekers. Julia Gillard spoke about the need to place Australians before foreigners when it comes to jobs.
No one specifically said it, but there was sketch of the "average" western Sydney which went something like this: a xenophobic, uneducated, homogenised, working class and crime strangled community caught in one, big, traffic jam. All these problems could be solved with a couple of big-ticket items including a new freeway that can take you all the way into the city of Sydney.
Taking a number of phone calls myself, I tried to explain to reporters the subtleties of western Sydney. Few wanted to listen. So, over the last few days I spoke to a number of my students who wanted to share five important things about western Sydney.
The first is that people want to live in western Sydney. It may surprise you that not everyone in Sydney wants to spend a million dollars for a tiny beachside apartment or be surrounded by inner city hipsters. The suburbs, so often disparaged, are places people want to and choose to live and offer a desirable lifestyle. Breathe easy, your inner city dwelling is safe.
Secondly, western Sydney is not a homogenous place ranging from the Hawkesbery (north-west) to Campbelltown (south-west). There are mixed communities: ethnically, socially, sexually, politically, culturally and spiritually. When someone asks about "the people" of western Sydney they could be talking about the owners of million dollar homes in Penrith, one of the thousands of small businesses in Parramatta, the LGA of Liverpool where over 150 languages are spoken or the homeless youth that should embarrass governments of all persuasions across our entire nation.
They are also talking about the medical students at the University of Western Sydney, PFLAG (or the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) as well as the artists-in-residence at the Casula Powerhouse.
This takes us to the third aspect of western Sydney: the suburbs out west are home to a vibrant arts community. Formal organisations like the aforementioned Casula Powerhouse, the Campbelltown Arts Centre and Information and Culture Exchange (ICE) work with independent artists to give us a constant stream of openings, performances and events.
Included here are community arts projects. One example is the work of Penrith City Council and various partners, including Westfield (Penrith) and the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, to facilitate Mondo: a weekly Thursday evening event which includes an open mic, dance classes and creative events of all kinds.
Fourthly, the western suburbs are not anyone’s heartland — Labor, Liberal, Greens or the latest manifestation of One Nation. They are not racist rednecks living in fear of refugees, small business owners who want to cut red tape, left-leaning unionists or anti-coal seam gas activists — but just like in every other part of Australia, all these groups are represented. Within this complex community, we see a microcosm of Australian politics that reflects much of what is happening in other parts of the country. Spending time here, you will see everyday multiculturalism alongside elements of everyday racism.
There is a frustration with politics being placed ahead of policy; there is an increasing disconnection between everyday life experiences and formal politics; our politicians are the same as everyone else’s — for them being elected is more important than cooperating for the national good.
These issues are currently creating a backlash against the Gillard Government. If Tony Abbott wins government at the end of this year, he will experience one the shortest honeymoon periods in history, as exactly the same issues will again surface. The current political disconnect is not linked to the Gillard Government; research undertaken by the Whitlam Institute confirms that this is a long-term trend that will not turn around until there is a dramatic change in the relationship between politicians and the electorate.
The fifth issue is that the western suburbs are not that hard to get to: you can jump on a train, travel along the M4 or M5, or catch one of those red busses. You do not require a visa or need an election campaign to visit. If you live in Sydney, they are not "out there" — they are either where you live or just down the road.
When I first was appointed as an associate lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, everyone assumed it was a transition phase until I could get a job at an inner-Sydney university. Just under seven years later, working with the students at the University of Western Sydney remains the best job I have had. In my time here, highlights are too many to mention: from working with a mother of two with Pakistani heritage to spearhead a fair trade campaign, facilitating Parramatta Council’s Gay and Lesbian forum, witnessing the emergence of anti-racist groups to engaging with active climate action networks.
The surprise, jokes and amusement that the Prime Minister would spend a week "out west" confirms that the western suburbs remain Sydney’s "other": an exotic playground with a fantasised population portrayed as the political pundits desire: from Howard’s Battlers to the Aspirational Classes. The reality is very different — something people would realise if they could get past the Rooty Hill RSL.
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