Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

These Suburbs Are the Real Australian Election Battleground

  • City’s west includes electorates government must win on July 2
  • Bus rides through east and west tell a tale of two cities

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s safely held electorate in eastern Sydney boasts Bondi Beach’s rolling surf and the sheltered harbor-side enclave of Watsons Bay. Nestled among Australia’s richest households is the former banker’s own waterfront mansion.

An hour’s drive inland to Penrith, it’s another world. Here in the low-rise sprawl of western Sydney, Andrew Ashley says he’s lived in a makeshift shelter in the scrub for a year, surviving on food handouts and unemployment welfare. The eight-month-old news that Turnbull is in charge reached Ashley only a week ago.

The Penrith community kitchen.
The Penrith community kitchen.
Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

The 36-year-old former scaffolder is one face of an economic divide almost slicing Sydney in two as July 2 elections approach, belying images of a prosperous harbor city. Out west, where Turnbull says government will be won or lost, the multi-millionaire’s mantra of jobs and growth isn’t so convincing. In many areas the benefits of Australia’s 25 recession-free years are tough to see.

“I need a break to get back on my feet,” says Ashley after grabbing a free lunch of spaghetti bolognese at a charity kitchen near Penrith’s train station. The main opposition Labor party has his vote. “They seem to be helping the people who are struggling a bit more.”

Demarcation Line

Poverty and affluence are knitted into every city and the gulf between Sydney and its western suburbs is far from uniform. But a rough demarcation line of inequality starts a short drive west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Continue further and incomes and property prices fall, while crime and unemployment climb. The region is home to 2.12 million people, almost half the entire city’s population.

A report last year by the New South Wales state parliament showed there are too few jobs for Western Sydney residents, compared with a surplus in the rest of the city. Viewed as a region, its education levels are lower, the number of local businesses is falling faster and the largest industry -- manufacturing -- is shrinking, according to the report.

The electorate of Lindsay, which is home to Penrith, is one of around a dozen seats nationally that the coalition risks losing in the election. It is a key battleground for Labor leader Bill Shorten, campaigning on education and health, and Turnbull, who’s proposing tax cuts for companies and high-income earners. Opinion polls have the two sides tied.

“The problem for Turnbull is not that he’s got a lot of money, particularly since he made it himself,” said David Burchell, a political historian at Western Sydney University in Penrith. “It’s more the sense of being out of touch.”

Burchell says the region has moved on from a long-held stereotype of tradesmen in flannelette shirts driving cars with eight-cylinder engines and throaty exhausts. Lindsay is characterized by families keen for better opportunities for their children. But with wealth typically tied up in the value of their homes, residents are particularly sensitive to the health of the economy.

The Bondi Icebergs pool.
The Bondi Icebergs pool.
Photographer: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg

“People don’t mind the rich getting richer, so long as everyone feels they’re being dragged along,” he said. “But when you get a combination of income differentials widening and a stagnation of real incomes, then that produces a lot of friction.”

The gap between the rich and poor is growing, government data show.

Turnbull’s own Point Piper neighborhood, in the electorate of Wentworth, has Australia’s highest mean taxable income at A$200,015 ($147,000) a year. That’s almost doubled in 10 years. In Penrith, the figure is just A$53,192, up from A$35,516 a decade earlier.

Robbery is about 30 times more frequent in Penrith, the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research says. The unemployment rate there was 8.3 percent in December 2015. In Wentworth’s waterfront districts, it was 1.7 percent.

“I’d like to say things have improved, I really would, but they’re not really improving,” said Cathy Craig, 62, who runs a community kitchen in Penrith that feeds weekday lunches to as many as 100 people, including entire families, the homeless and addicts. 

“It’s a wider cross-section now,” said Craig, who’s considering swinging back to Labor at the election.

It’s not hard to find city folk who rarely, if ever, go west. Many Sydneysiders mock Western Sydney residents as “westies.” Those who drive east into Sydney to work are nicknamed “squinters” because they face the sun both ways.

Bondi Lifestyle

At the south end of Bondi Beach, Rod Moss emerges from the open-air swimming pool at the Icebergs club. He’s fit, tanned and at 47, already semi-retired from his building company.

“I try not to leave the eastern suburbs,” Moss says, looking out over the sun-licked surf. “If you love the water, this is the place to be.” He wants Turnbull to stay in power.

The prime minister, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive, is trying to counter opposition claims he’s out of touch. On Monday, he released a video in which he recalls being raised by a father who had little money. 

Turnbull also publicizes his use of public transport to appeal to everyday Australians. His favorite bus, he tweets, is the 389 service that winds through his leafy electorate to the harbor. It passes galleries, interior design shops and organic bakeries. 

The 774 service from Penrith rail station east to St Marys tells a different story. The driver is housed in a metal cage, a measure unseen in the east. The bus passes two Cash Converters and Shop ’n’ Hock pawnbrokers and a juvenile detention center. On a Wednesday afternoon last month, the driver’s radio blasts out a warning: police are chasing a man who jumped off the bus in front. It’s not safe to approach him.

A pawnbroker in Penrith.
A pawnbroker in Penrith.
Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

Back on Station Street in Penrith, Ashley is looking for work but finds it hard to stay in touch from his campsite. After servicing debts, he’s left with A$150 a week and it’s never enough. Slightly built with a thin beard, he says he can only imagine Turnbull’s life on the waterfront.

“Lucky him,” he says, setting off his child-sized pushbike to find a free coffee.

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