Western Sydney Transforms From Heartland to Heartburn for Labor

Vicki Dowler comes from a family that’s backed Labor for decades as the party of the working class in Western Sydney. Her plans to defect at the next election show the work remaining for Labor to revive its prospects after ditching former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

“My father voted Labor all his life and he’d turn in his grave if he thought I was going to vote against them,” Dowler, 58, a shift-worker at an army-base kitchen, said as she ate lunch in a shopping center in the suburb of Casula. “He’d be devastated to see what’s happened to the party. Everyone around here has lost so much faith in them.”

Dowler’s change of heart underscores the challenge for reinstalled Labor leader Kevin Rudd in the party’s heartland, a mass of suburbs where about 10 percent of Australians live and which produced prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating. While it has held five of the area’s 10 federal districts for at least 29 years, polls before the June 26 ouster of unpopular Gillard showed Labor’s eight seats faced a swing to the opposition.

Rudd has months to recalibrate policy as he seeks to extend Labor’s six-year stint in power at an election due by November 30. In Western Sydney, the party has to contend with a social and economic evolution away from the Catholic, labor-union families and working-class immigrants that historically supported it.

‘Temporary Bounce’

“Labor has never felt the need to properly campaign in Western Sydney because it was so entrenched, and now it finds just about every traditionally safe seat looks marginal,” said David Burchell, a professor of humanities at the University of Western Sydney. “You have to be deeply skeptical whether Rudd’s return will provide anything more than a temporary bounce.”

The region of 2 million people has been affected by a manufacturing demise that’s cut union rolls, with employers such as saucemaker Rosella and building materials maker CSR Ltd. closing factories after the local dollar’s surge left them uncompetitive. At the same time, it has seen an influx of wealthier voters from Eastern Sydney fleeing a jump in property prices near the coast and business district. Rising education levels mean increasing numbers of voters no longer identify themselves as working class.

Resentment among legal immigrant families against illegal entrants to the nation from boats run by smugglers has left the area ripe for opposition leader Tony Abbott’s tougher stance against asylum seekers. With a surge in the share of non-Australian born residents in Western Sydney -- in the community of Cabramatta, 71 percent of the population was born overseas -- the issue resounds in the region.

Voters Ignored

“They feel like Labor has taken them for granted and left them behind,” Andrew Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research at the Australian National University in Canberra, said of Western Sydney voters. “Abbott is now speaking the words they want to hear, about protecting their jobs, keeping out boat people. Labor realizes it’s made a mistake, its policies haven’t appealed, but it’s hard to turn that around.”

Rudd earned a political victory after he secured agreement from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at a meeting today to host a summit on the people-smuggling issue with representatives from some of the asylum seekers’ home countries.

At stake in the election is the management of the 12th-largest economy, with Rudd pledging to stick with Gillard’s carbon-pricing policy that Abbott, 55, has vowed to dismantle. The coalition has also pledged to abolish Labor’s tax on mining company profits, slash spending on the government’s planned A$44 billion ($40 billion) national broadband network and cut the public service.

Recession Risk

Rudd, 55, already has begun recalibrating Labor’s economic message since seizing back the job Gillard, 51, took from him in 2010 -- repeatedly flagging the risk of a recession posed by a slowdown in China, Australia’s top export destination. Gillard and ex-Treasurer Wayne Swan’s trumpeting of the nation’s outperformance relative to other advanced countries proved a loser among voters witnessing the downfall of the nation’s car-making industry.

“He’s got to go out there and say ‘look, I’m back, we’re going to change things,’” said Andy Nikola, 45, owner of a barber shop in Ingleburn and a longtime Labor voter. “He’s got a good chance providing he does the right thing.”

Reworking Pitch

Rudd has said he plans to take time to consider Labor’s policies before the election. Gillard, who had scheduled a Sept. 14 date for the ballot, oversaw unprecedented taxes on mining and carbon emissions during her leadership of a minority government after the 2010 vote, which was the closest in seven decades.

Labor’s deficit to the Liberal-National coalition has shrunk to two percentage points from 14 points on a two-party preferred measure since Rudd took charge, according to a June 28-30 Newspoll survey of 1,149 people with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Even so, Labor hasn’t led Abbott’s opposition in the polls for more than two years.

Four decades ago, 76 percent of residents in Liverpool -- established in 1810 as one of the country’s first settlements -- were born in Australia. That has dropped to 32 percent, with 9.5 percent of residents from Iraq and 5.9 percent from India.

Natural Fit

Labor was a natural fit for new European arrivals after World War II through to refugees from Indochina in the 1970s-1980s, said Burchell, who has taught at the University of Western Sydney for two decades. “But in the last few decades that’s changed because a lot of migrants didn’t see themselves as working class when they left their countries. They are totally aspirational. Labor has a real problem convincing those people they should be voting for them.”

About 31 percent of Western Sydney residents now have a bachelor degree or higher, compared with fewer than 1 percent in the centers of Blacktown and Penrith in 1971.

Sorn Tang, who runs a hardware shop in Cabramatta that she inherited from her father, a refugee from Cambodia, will back Rudd in the election although she no longer views herself as wedded to Labor. “My daughter feels the same,” said Tang, 43. “The new generation is more educated and don’t want to be seen as working class.” Tang aims to move to Manly, a Sydney beachside suburb with a median weekly household income of A$2,084, more than twice that of Cabramatta. “It’s much nicer there than here.”

Union Roots

As new Australians move in, Labor is seeing the erosion of an Irish-Catholic culture steeped in trade unionism that formed the backbone of the party, which traces its roots back to the 1890s. In the 2011 census, 15 percent of Parramatta residents identified themselves as Catholic, down from 31 percent four decades before.

Trade unions are in decline, with the proportion of men who were members in their main job at 18 percent nationally in 2011, from 43 percent in 1992. Some big industries that were sources of union members “are gone,” said Tim Ayres, New South Wales secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

Unions and Labor “have got to make sure we have a real presence in the community and a place for people to interact,” Ayres said. “That’s a key thing that’s deteriorated in Western Sydney.”

While Australia’s jobless level of 5.5 percent is lower than the 7.6 percent level for the U.S. in May, or 7.8 percent in the U.K. in April, in some areas of Bankstown it’s as high as 14 percent.

Gentrifying Trend

Meantime, the region is seeing another type of immigrant. Former residents of central Sydney are moving west in search of cheaper housing, boosting the ranks of middle-class commuters who face unreliable public transport and clogged roads.

“When I got here in 1971 this used to be a little village,” said Larry Mackison, 57, waiting for a morning train at Ingleburn. Having stopped his car commute due to heavy traffic, he spends 90 minutes each way on a three-train trip to Rydalmere, about 28 kilometers (17 miles) away, for work as a manufacturing engineer. “There’s been no proper planning and the workers are suffering,” said Mackison, a former Labor stalwart who called himself a swing voter.

The move west is pushing up property costs. Housing prices in Western Sydney have risen faster in the past 20 years than Sydney’s coast, according to Matthew Hardman, co-head of research at Rismark International, a fund manager and advisory firm.

Property Values

Cumulative returns since 1993 have soared 278 percent in the area, with the median home price now A$475,000, compared with $515,000 in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

House and land packages on the outer fringes can cost A$600,000, said Bernard Salt, a demographer with KPMG, a global provider of tax and audit services. “That requires two incomes to pay off for decades and the new owners are still 40 kilometers and up to two hours away from the central business district,” Salt said.

“Western Sydney is Australia’s forgotten city,” neglected despite a swelling in resident rolls, he said. The area’s population is forecast by the Bureau of Transport Statistics to jump 56 percent in the 25 years to 2036, to more than 3 million.

Laurie Ferguson is battling for re-election after winning the lower house seat of Werriwa by a margin of 6.8 percent in 2010. Up against him is Kent Johns, a one-time Labor politician who left the party in 2002. Driving through the streets of his electorate south-west of Sydney’s central business district, he says: “I’ve been in parliament for 29 years and I can’t say I’ve had a hard contest before.”

‘Early Days’

The odds of keeping the seat held by Labor since 1934 have improved since Rudd’s return, Ferguson says. “But it’s early days.”

On a campaign stop, Ferguson spoke to 22 members of the Blue Hills retirement village. Residents peppered him with queries on how Labor will stop the “boat people,’’ refugees from war-torn nations who pay traffickers to ferry them from Indonesia in rickety boats that sometimes sink.

At the meeting with Ferguson was John McGrath, 68, a former maintenance manager who said Labor, a party he had been “born into,” had failed to adapt.

“The party is barking up the wrong tree because none of the younger people want to call themselves working class,” McGrath said. While he still plans to vote for the party, a Labor loss “probably won’t do them any harm in the long term because the party needs to have a new broom,” he said.

Currency Impact

While Labor steered the nation through the aftermath of the U.S. subprime crisis without a recession, there are signs of slower growth. A resources boom is fading while manufacturers have struggled as the local currency held above $1 from mid-June last year to May 10, the longest stretch above parity since its 1983 flotation. The Aussie was at 91.30 U.S. cents late yesterday in Sydney.

Almost 60 percent of businesses in Western Sydney are self-employed companies, according to New South Wales state government figures. Manufacturing was responsible for about 16 percent, or A$13.4 billion, of the area’s total value-added industry in the year to June 30, 2011. In 1971, 36 percent of Blacktown workers and 34 percent in Parramatta were employed in manufacturing, according to Census data.

Labor’s decades-long political hold on the area has left a legacy of corruption concern. At the state level, Labor in New South Wales was shunted from office two years ago after 16 years in power, winning just 24 percent of the vote.

The party has made “many mistakes,” said Paul Hennessy, 50, manning the counter of the Penrith branch of charity shop St Vincent de Paul. Even so, he will vote Labor. “No-one seems to want to know about the good things the government has done.”

For Dowler, it is no longer an option. “The damage has been done. Rudd was the one who did the damage with his policies in the first place. I can’t see that I would vote for them again.”

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