The political war of attrition to win Sydney’s west

2013-04-24 04.50.02 amNICK CATER

Published in The Weekend Australian, September 14/15, 2013

IN 1995, a precocious first-term opposition backbencher stood in the House of Representatives and made a rash prediction.

“Howard’s battlers are going to be to the 1990s what Menzies’ forgotten people were to the 1940s and 1950s,” the member for Warringah told the house.

“It is on their shoulders that a new generation of Liberal dominance is going to be created.”

Few outside the Liberal’s partisan inner core would have given much credence to Tony Abbott’s impertinent analysis; the Coalition had been in power for barely seven of the previous 23 years.

Yet, with last Saturday’s victory, the evidence of a new era of Coalition ascendancy is compelling. The scoreboard across seven elections since 1996 tells the story: five Coalition wins, one to Labor and one draw.

The Howard battler strategy, a conscious attempt by the Liberal Party to win over Labor’s once rusted-on, blue-collar constituency, began 20 years ago after Paul Keating’s “sweetest victory” election. Under then federal director Andrew Robb, the Liberals campaigned to win over middle Australia with considerable success: Labor’s share of the blue-collar vote fell 12 percentage points to 37 per cent in 1996, to give the Coalition a 10-point lead.

Then, as now, western Sydney was the demographic and symbolic heart of the Labor vote.

Taking a 20-year view of the political landscape in western Sydney, Labor’s ability to keep the swings against it below the national average across western Sydney gives little ground for comfort.

Across 15 seats in the west and northwest of Sydney, the Coalition gained four seats to give it seven in total. A stronger candidate than Jaymes Diaz in Greenway would have given it an eighth, while Banks has slipped out of Labor’s hands for the first time since its creation in 1949.

The battle may ebb and flow and preference distribution may mask Labor’s losses, but the historical trend is unmistakable.

At the 1993 election, Labor won 57 per cent of the primary vote across the 15 seats and the Liberals just 34 per cent. Even in 1996, the “Howard battler” election, Labor had a clear lead of 47 per cent to 40 per cent.

This year, for the first time, the parties are level on 43 per cent.

Like John Howard, Abbott appears suited for western Sydney. His socially conservative views that irritate his critics in politics and the media are readily accepted in the west of Sydney where attachment to family, tradition and religion is keenly felt.

Abbott’s personal campaign to win acceptance in the west predates that of the Liberal Party. A product of a middle-class, north shore upbringing, and a Rhodes scholar, Abbott has consciously tried to shake off the silvertail stereotype since returning from Oxford in the early 1980s. His first experience of the west was as a trainee assistant priest at Our Lady of the Way parish in Emu Plains near Penrith in 1985-86.

After leaving the priesthood, he joined the staff of The Bulletin for a year, then took the unusual step of quitting for a year to run a concrete-batching plant in Silverwater. It was a job, Abbott writes in his book Battlelines, “that could not be dismissed as ‘ivory tower’ “.

Labor’s decline in the west coincides with its embrace of progressive causes projecting values antithetical to those of the conservative west.

The 2011 census points to clear differences. Across the 15 seats, one in eight people say they have no religion; in the rest of the country, it is close to one in four.

Chris Bowen’s seat of McMahon has the distinction of having the lowest proportion of same-sex couples in the country; one in 614, compared with one in 11 in Tania Plibersek’s seat of Sydney.

In the 15 seats, couples in registered marriages outnumber couples in unregistered relationships by 10-1; in the rest of the country, couples are twice as likely to cohabit.

Work patterns are different too: western Sydney residents are likelier to work in the private sector than those elsewhere and they are likelier to work in a trade than a profession.

Counter to received political wisdom, the people of western Sydney appear not to be looking for handouts. They are less likely to collect all major categories of welfare, with the exception of the Youth Allowance. Nationally, one in 11 adults are on the Newstart Allowance; in western Sydney it is one in 23.

Abbott’s Menzian self-help rhetoric – lifters, not leaners; a hand up, not a handout – is well tuned for this audience.

A third trend that, on paper at least, should run in Abbott’s favour is the region’s multicultural mix. By portraying ethnic minorities as disadvantaged and vulnerable, Labor convinced itself that the party of redistribution was the non-European migrant’s natural home.

Yet, across the board, migrants from Asia and the Middle East are strongly socially conservative. They put family and community values ahead of individualism or universalism, and issues such as gay marriage are not easily accomodated. They put a premium on education and their work ethic is strong.

Migrants, then, qualify perfectly as Menzies’ forgotten people, those he defined in his 1942 radio talk as “salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women taken for granted by each political party in turn”.

Abbott’s attempts to win friends in ethnic communities has proceeded largely unreported but has been conducted with the same strategic intent as his broader western Sydney project.

At the start of the election campaign, when Kevin Rudd was berating Abbott for being reluctant to take part in a leader’s debate, Abbott was delivering an ecumenical message to an Islamic audience in Auburn at a gathering to mark the end of Ramadan.

“A good God smiles on all who sincerely seek the truth,” Abbott said. “I believe that religious faiths, all religious faiths, seek to come to grips with the complexity of the human condition.

“They help us to come closer to being our best selves and to love and to care for others as we all know in our hearts we should. I believe in the fundamental unity of mankind.”

In the absence of more detailed data of voting intentions, the Liberal Party’s multicultural strategy is, at best, a work in progress.

On the ground, it is not immediately clear from Saturday’s election how the region’s ethnic diversity is playing out between the parties.

The Liberal Party candidate most clearly identified with an ethnic community, Andrew Nguyen in Fowler, had a disastrous election, losing 11 per cent of the primary vote, a defection that almost entirely benefited Labor’s Chris Hayes.

The Liberals did relatively poorly in the two seats with the highest Muslim populations: Blaxland, where the Liberals’ primary vote fell by 1.3 per cent, and Watson, where it increased only slightly.

All other things being equal, Labor will enter the next election looking vulnerable to further losses in western Sydney. A stronger Coalition candidate in Greenway would give the party a strong chance of retaking the seat, which Labor holds on a margin of a little more than 3.5 per cent.

Labor will be defending a margin of less than 6 per cent in Bowen’s once rock-solid Labor seat of McMahon. The gap in the primary vote in Mark Latham’s former seat of Werriwa was 17 points when Latham lost the 2004 election; this year it was reduced to 5 per cent. A swing of less than 3 per cent at the next election would give the Coalition a historical victory.

There is nothing inevitable in this presumed onward march, however. Should Labor draw the lessons of this defeat that it failed to heed in 1996, it would refocus on middle Australia and turn a deaf ear to the campaigns of the progressive Left.

An Abbott government may falter, and this may be the Coalition’s natural limit in the west.

The long-term trend, however, is not encouraging for Labor.


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