Election campaigns are full of metaphors and symbols, and one of the most enduring in Australian politics is the idea of “western Sydney”. To a non-resident of Australia’s largest city, western Sydney conjures up notions of endless suburbs interspersed with shopping precincts, the ubiquitous leagues clubs and a variety of footballing clubs using the term in their nomenclature.
There is also a sense that the area is full of marginal seats, and this is one of the reasons why both major parties commit so much time and energy to campaigning there.
Interestingly, the number of marginal districts in what might be termed western Sydney is not particularly large. On the basis of the result in 2013, they are evenly spread between Labor and Liberal. Of the Coalition seats held after the 2013 election, 27 (or 29%) are in New South Wales, while Labor holds 12 seats in NSW (or 20% of its total seats). Of the Coalition’s NSW seats, nine are ultra-marginal (margins of 5% or less). Labor has eight NSW seats among its ultra-marginals.
These figures have been affected by a recent redistribution in which two Liberal-held seats are now notionally Labor. One of these is Parramatta – clearly a part of western Sydney. The other is Dobell, and reminds us that the major parties also have vulnerable seats in the growing conurbation between Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.
So, the significance of western Sydney resonates not only in terms of the actual number of marginal seats (for the Liberals, Macquarie, Lindsay, Macarthur and Banks, and for Labor, Greenway and Parramatta), but also for the type of constituent found in these seats.
To be seen to be appealing to “western Sydney” is shorthand for saying that the party is serious about winning over people who are trying to buy property in the suburbs. They are voters who are concerned about the state of the economy and who depend on the provision of state services such as health and education, but who are also convinced about the need for strong border protection. They also may be socially quite conservative.
The voter in western Sydney could just as easily be the swinging voter of outer south-eastern Melbourne or any one of the regional seats that figure as ultra-marginal. These are the voters parties need to win over to form government.
As much as it might offend federalist sensibilities across the nation, holding the official party launch in western Sydney – as Labor will on Sunday and the Liberals will next weekend – makes a great deal of sense.
At one level, launching in western Sydney symbolises the party’s commitment to the concerns assumed to be held by the swinging voter. And that remains true even if, as in Labor’s case, half the partisan vote and a fair swag of party members reject conservative approaches to immigration, same-sex marriage and what to do with refugees.
Labor will be hoping the symbolism of the launch locale might mitigate a creeping suspicion that the party leadership is struggling to contain the party’s left wing on some of these matters.
More broadly, it’s also true that the party that wins “western Sydney” – in its greater expanse – will win the election. In addition to its dominance in terms of population, Sydney is the economic centre of the country. It is also the centre of the nation’s media, with the most important of the nation’s public and private media organisations being headquartered there.
The only rival to its pre-eminence is Melbourne, and apart from being of secondary importance in all of these categories bar the fact that Labor leader Bill Shorten hails from there, Victoria has relatively few marginal seats. Two of these – Melbourne and Batman – only figure because of the rise of the Greens.
In terms of symbolism, the sort of realigning voter you find in Melbourne is the antithesis of the archetypal swinging voter found in the rest of the country for whom the “western Sydney” cohort is a metaphor. No wonder the major parties are launching in western Sydney.
Authors: Nick Economou, Senior Lecturer, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University