Gillard Bids to Win Back Western Sydney Heartland in Visit

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard began a five-day visit to the key election battleground of western Sydney, her Labor party’s traditional stronghold that surveys indicate wants a change of government.

Gillard is trying to arrest her party’s poll slide in an area that elected two of her Labor predecessors, Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam. She will stay in the local suburb of Rooty Hill rather than the prime ministerial residence on Sydney harbor as she promotes her government’s achievements and tries to contain fallout from scandals involving former local Labor lawmakers at an anti-corruption commission.

The aim is to “talk to people in the community, work out what’s on their mind, as well as talking to them about the government’s programs and plans and the difference we’re trying to make for peoples’ future,” Gillard said in a television interview with Channel 9 today.

The political urgency of the visit was underscored by a weekend poll that showed she faced the loss of four typically safe Labor seats -- two held by government ministers -- if the election was held now. Western Sydney is in the slow lane of Australia’s two-speed economy, with major employers including manufacturing, retail and construction struggling in comparison with the resource-rich regions of the nation’s north and west.

Job Security

Concern about job security, particularly in industrial western Sydney, has intensified as a 56 percent rise in the Australian dollar in the past four years hurts the competitiveness of manufacturers. Rosella, a saucemaker founded before Australia became a nation in 1901, announced it would shut down March 1 with the loss of 70 jobs in the region.

The prime minister will visit at least six electoral districts during the stay and hold a Cabinet meeting in western Sydney. She gave a speech at the University of Western Sydney late yesterday -- acknowledging the high currency’s impact on the region’s manufacturers -- and earlier in the day announced a taskforce to crack down on criminal groups. Gang violence and shootings have increased in suburban Australia, she said.

Gillard today offered more than A$1 billion ($1 billion) to start building a western Sydney motorway network, conditional on the state government presenting a workable proposal. She said it was important for families and a priority for the national economy.

“Put simply, I want to see people able to get into town; I want freight to be able to get to the port,” she told reporters. “We are determined to see these issues addressed for the people of western Sydney and for the businesses here.”

Battered Brand

Labor’s brand has been battered in New South Wales by allegations heard at the Independent Commission Against Corruption that former Labor party state minister Eddie Obeid earned millions of dollars from illegal property deals.

A ReachTel automated poll published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on March 2 showed that the federal seats of Werriwa, Chifley, Blaxland and McMahon -- all in western Sydney -- would be lost if an election were held now. The survey of more than 600 people in each seat had a margin of error of just under 4 percent.

At the 2010 election, Chifley and Blaxland were won by margins of 12.3 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. McMahon and Werriwa were held with 7.8 percent and 6.8 percent, it showed.

Preferred Leader

Gillard slipped behind opposition leader Tony Abbott as Australia’s preferred leader for the first time since August, a Newspoll published Feb. 26 showed. The ruling Labor party trailed the Liberal-National opposition coalition by 10 percentage points on a two-party preferred basis, it showed.

The ReachTel poll showed a return to the leadership by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who Gillard ousted in 2010, would save two of the seats in western Sydney and make the other two winnable.

“Each of these polls is yet another blow to the prime minister’s authority,” said Zareh Ghazarian, a politics lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne. “Western Sydney is crucial to any party that wants to form government.”

For much of last century, western Sydney was known politically as an impoverished industrial region whose voters supported Labor. The seats of Werriwa and Blaxland were held by former Labor prime ministers Whitlam from 1952-1978 and Keating from 1969-1996, respectively.

Changing Demographics

The area’s demographics are changing: one third of the population was born outside of Australia, the highest proportion for the Sydney area, according to government data. People from Vietnam, the U.K., the Philippines, Lebanon, and China led those born overseas.

Former Labor leader Mark Latham, once the member for Werriwa and a former aide to Whitlam who grew up in Sydney’s west, said in a March 2 opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review that “economic affluence” is the area’s true story.

“People who grew up in fibro shacks now live in double story, solid stone homes,” Latham wrote. “ Across the region, families which once manned the production lines of grease-infested factories now own their own businesses or, at a minimum, invest in the stock exchange.”

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