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Edition 41

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Essay

How the Westies won

ONE BY ONE, the names flash up on the big screen, and one by one, the swaying, dancing ocean of red and black bellows them out: 'Ante Čović!' 'Adam D'Apuzzo!' 'Nikolai Topor-Stanley!' 'Michael Beauchamp!' 'Jérome Polenz!' 'Dino Kresinger!' 'Aaron Mooy!' 'Youssouf Hersi!' 'Iacopo La Rocca!' 'Mark Bridge!' 'Shinji Ono!' 'Shannon Cole!' 'Joey Gibbs!' 'Kwabena Appiah-Kubi!'

Australia's newest football team is poised to take on Perth Glory in front of a crowd every bit as multicultural as the home side. Still in their debut season, the Western Sydney Wanderers have beaten some of the mightiest clubs in the A-League competition, including arch-rivals Sydney FC. Now on a six-match winning streak, they need only two more victories to reach the top of the table.

Just as remarkably, the team has united the warring tribes who followed the ethnically based clubs of the now-defunct National Soccer League, and who, too often, tarnished the game by re-enacting age-old battles on the terraces. Now Serbs and Croats, Greeks and Macedonians – and thousands of other fans, regardless of ancestry – have joined together to support the first team to represent western Sydney.

Gritty, hard-working and unglamorous, the club mirrors a region increasingly populated by soccer-loving migrants from Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. Forced to wait seven years for their own team, football fans have embraced the Wanderers with a passion which has taken aback seasoned sportswriters. The club, in turn, has instilled pride in an area which, for most of its existence, has been ridiculed or overlooked by the Sydney fixated on the CBD and harbour.

In recent years, western Sydney's swag of marginal seats has at least guaranteed it attention at federal election time. Home to two million people, and with a $95 billion economy bigger than Brisbane's or Perth's, the west played a decisive role in John Howard's 1996 election victory, and Kevin Rudd's in 2007. On 14 September 2013, barring a miracle for Labor, its voters will throw their weight behind Tony Abbott and help engineer another change of government.

The significance of the former ALP heartland, though, goes wider than its political volatility. As the nation's most ethnically diverse region, and one which has undergone massive, migrant-driven growth in recent years, it offers a glimpse of how radically Australian society is changing – and a foretaste of how the rest of the country, or much of it, will look in decades to come. Here, multiculturalism is not an abstract concept; it is a reality which is negotiated daily. Here, too, below the surface, something quite profound may be happening: the forging of a new cultural identity, based not on the bush but the densely populated suburbs and the rich blend of people who call them home.

In the shopping centres and licensed clubs of Sydney's west, new arrivals from Africa and the Middle East bump up against established migrants possessive of their adopted turf and Anglo-Celts cleaving to an older Australia. As with any such fundamental shift, the transformation of what used to be a white, working-class area into a kaleidoscope of diverse neighbourhoods and cultures is fraught with tensions.

A sprawling, unintelligible wasteland devoid of culture; a simmering cauldron of religious fundamentalism and 'otherness'; an impoverished, potentially mutinous underclass; 'McMansions' bursting the seams of their blocks – these are among outsiders' perceptions of the region, which feed the image of a vaguely menacing hinterland overshadowing the luckier country nearer the sea.

Counterbalancing them is what some are calling the 'New West': a western Sydney with a spring in its step, optimistic about the opportunities presented by growth, rejoicing in its constantly renewing multicultural reservoir – a place embodied by the Western Sydney Wanderers. And beneath those competing visions lurks a deep-seated malaise, aggravated by financial pressures, congested motorways, the changing face of familiar neighbourhoods and reports of yet another drive-by shooting. These things politicians ignore at their peril.

 

'YOU SHOULD BE locking up that bird in the grey suit – she's in there, the old bag, go get her!' yells Yvonne Slade, as four fresh-faced Australian Federal Police officers cycle past the onlookers gathered outside Penrith City Library. 'She's ruining the country, she's got us in hock to China for billions, she can't stop the boats, she lies through her teeth.'

Inside, Julia Gillard is opening a 'one-stop digital shop'; outside, Slade, a diminutive blond, is shaking with indignation. 'I came here as a Ten Pound Pom; we got no housing, no hand-outs,' she fumes. 'Now my husband is sixty-three and he can't get a job, and he has to go to Centrelink every week to be degraded. He's a carpenter and draftsman, he's a really smart man and he can't get a go. But if you're an unemployed dole bludger with tattoos, they'll give you money.'

Were it not for the triennial soap opera of federal elections, it's unlikely Penrith would graze the national radar. The pleasant river town just shy of the Blue Mountains forms the guts of Lindsay, an ultra-marginal seat in Sydney's outer-west, which since its creation in 1984 has always been held by the party of government. Classic 'battler' territory, it was won by Jackie Kelly in 1996, cementing John Howard's election victory and symbolising the moment the politics of western Sydney shifted. In 2007, Kelly was ousted by David Bradbury, now Gillard's Assistant Treasurer, whose majority is just 1.12 per cent, or 933 votes.

Settled in the early nineteenth century, Penrith is proud of its place in Australia's European history. The federal Liberal candidate, Fiona Scott, is quick to tell you she is descended from one of the original farming families, with ancestors going back six or seven generations. While the market gardens and ten-acre properties on Lindsay's semi-rural outskirts evoke those origins, Penrith nowadays is a city in its own right, with a Westfield shopping centre, a teaching hospital, a campus of the University of Western Sydney (UWS), a league team (the Penrith Panthers) and a lively arts scene focused on nationally regarded institutions such as the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre. Mark Bridge, a Wanderers footballer, lives here, as does Gough Whitlam's younger sister, Freda.

In many ways, Lindsay – an hour's drive from Sydney along the often choked M4 motorway – defies definition. The 2011 census tells us that nearly 82 per cent of locals speak only English at home; more than half have white-collar jobs; 9.6 per cent are in tertiary education; the median weekly income is $615; and (according to one study) 24.7 per cent of households are suffering mortgage or rental stress. It doesn't tell us that the Australian Ballet performed on the half-way line of the Panthers' ground last year; that an atheists' group meets monthly at Penrith's Red Cow hotel; that a branch of Dan Murphy's sells Château d'Yquem; nor that the local University of the Third Age – which Freda Whitlam helped set up, and where, aged ninety-two, she still teaches Latin and India's comparative religions – has 1,500 members.

Culturally, Lindsay – which encompasses million-dollar homes on the Nepean River, Housing Commission estates and everything in between – has more in common with Sutherland Shire, the 'whitebread' slice of southern Sydney where the Cronulla riots erupted in 2005, than with the intensely multicultural middle-west. Once known as Pram City, Penrith is still populated by numerous young families – the demographic most squeezed by cost of living pressures, and also the most politically fickle. Many moved west to buy larger houses on more spacious blocks.

Although Bradbury is an industrious local member, few expect him to keep his job beyond 14 September. And, notwithstanding its iconic status, Lindsay is not the ALP's only worry in Sydney's west and south-west. (The north-west, which includes the fast-growing Hills district, more closely resembles the leafy north shore.) Four other seats have majorities of less than 5 per cent, and up to another six, depending on whom you speak to, are vulnerable. The latter include McMahon, Blaxland, Watson and Chifley – held, respectively, by the former Gillard minister Chris Bowen, the Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, the Environment Minister Tony Burke and the former Chief Whip Ed Husic. Electoral wipe-out here would not only signal a landslide defeat nationally; it would curtail the careers of a generation of Labor stars.

It was in an effort to charm disgruntled voters and reverse the ALP's disastrous polling that the Prime Minister spent four days in the western suburbs earlier this year – not just visiting, but staying overnight at the Novotel in Rooty Hill. Her first stop – hoping, perhaps, some of the stardust would brush off on her – was the Wanderers' training base in nearby Blacktown, but she had already delivered a morale-boosting speech the previous night to a gathering of the Labor faithful at the UWS. That event felt like an old-style ALP rally, complete with nostalgic references to Gough Whitlam and 'a boy from Bankstown called Paul Keating' – the west had a key role in their election wins, too. The only false note was struck when Julia Gillard – in front of branch members from every corner of the globe – pledged to 'stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back'. A young Iranian I met afterwards, who arrived in Australia some years ago as a refugee, compared her remark – alluding to a recently announced crackdown on the (alleged) misuse of 457 visas to bring in low-paid foreign workers – to 'the kind of dog whistle stuff [John] Howard used to say… It made me feel slightly uneasy.'

 

COMPLETED IN 2012, the modernist Eclipse Tower dominates the Parramatta skyline, encapsulating the city's aspirations and those of the region to which it forms the gateway. Designated Sydney's second CBD at least twenty-five years ago, Parramatta – close to the geographical and demographic heart of Sydney – feels on the verge of fulfilling its destiny. One of Eclipse's first tenants was the regional office of the international accounting firm Deloitte, which plans to boost its Parramatta workforce to five hundred by 2015. Nearly one-third of Australia's top five hundred companies are based in western Sydney, along with (in Parramatta) state government agencies including Sydney Water, the Attorney-General's department and New South Wales Police.

Parramatta's champions like to recall how it saved the Sydney colony from starvation, after the soil at Sydney Cove proved impossible to cultivate. They also cite New South Wales's fifth governor, Lachlan Macquarie, who – recognising the colony's future lay in expansion – founded five new towns on the Hawkesbury River, as well as Liverpool and Campbelltown. It was Macquarie, too, who dispatched Gregory Blaxland, William Charles Wentworth and William Lawson to pioneer a route over the Blue Mountains; May 2013 marked the bicentenary of their crossing. Now the west is again the city's main growth area, its population projected to reach nearly three million by 2036.

For much of its history, western Sydney was a collection of farming communities and country towns, of which Parramatta was the largest and most important. Not until the immediate post-war period was the region intensively settled, to accommodate returning soldiers, the children of the fertility boom and southern Europeans arriving under Australia's new migration program. Paddocks and market gardens were subdivided to make way for housing estates, but haphazard development meant schools, hospitals and transport were slow to follow. The area was solidly working class, and Sydneysiders living in more salubrious surroundings – including politicians and town planners – paid it scant attention.

Chris Bowen, who grew up in Fairfield in the '70s and '80s, says: 'One of the reasons I joined the Labor Party as a kid was I could tell we were being ignored, and it occurred to me that Labor was the only party that cared about that. Going to school in this area, it was self-evident that our school was a great school, but it didn't have the resources other schools had.'

Although disparities remain, growing wealth and social mobility – as well as successive waves of migrants – have transformed the region. Townhouses, duplexes and apartment buildings have supplanted fibro cottages, while mosques and temples dot the suburban landscape. The children of railway and factory workers have become teachers, accountants and graphic artists. Institutions such as the Riverside Theatre and Casula Powerhouse offer a rich cultural diet. Inner-city dwellers who bypass western Sydney en route to the mountains or snowfields might be surprised to discover how much Parramatta, in particular, has changed. The city's riverside area has been spruced up; its laneways are being rejuvenated, Melbourne-style; its artists' studios and 'pop-up' galleries are generating a creative buzz; its 'Eat Street' resembles a Parisian boulevard, with its rows of pavement cafes and restaurants.

The people have changed, too. Emerging from the station, I passed a young woman with an Islamic headscarf and studs in her nose, dragging on a cigarette as she strolled along with a gaggle of friends. Outside Circa Espresso, a quirky café tucked into a slender garage space, two Indians in sharp suits were discussing a business deal over chai lattes. Forty per cent of people in Parramatta are migrants from non-English-speaking countries (compared with 15.7 per cent nationally). Indians – among the most recent arrivals but already the largest migrant group, well ahead of English and New Zealanders – are remoulding suburbs like Harris Park, whose main Wigram Street is lined with curry houses, sari shops and Indian supermarkets. Further up are the unprepossessing three-storey walk-ups where the educated and entrepreneurial but initially impecunious rent a unit before making some money and moving on.

And yet… David Borger's twelfth-floor office in central Parramatta has a panoramic view of the Sydney CBD skyline, but it's not a sight that Borger – a former Labor mayor, state member and minister, now western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber – relishes. Waggling an exasperated finger in the direction of the big smoke, he laments: 'The most successful people don't stick around here; they make a buck and then piss off. We lose the talented people on the make, we lose the creative people, and with them we lose the money, and the expertise, and the tolerant attitudes.'

More than 90 per cent of the state's arts budget, according to Borger, is spent in the city of Sydney, yet Parramatta, despite its swelling population, has no public gallery. And while office towers are sprouting in the CBD, Parramatta's historic buildings – among the most significant in Australia – are crumbling. The sandstone Female Factory, built in 1796, and Roman Catholic Orphan School, from 1840, along with others, stand neglected and fenced off in a former hospital precinct by the river. The state government recently announced the latest 'master plan' to restore the site and open it to the public, but – like his predecessor – Barry O'Farrell has yet to commit any funds.

 

MONDAY, 4 MARCH: Julia Gillard is standing on a patch of tarmac by the M7, struggling to make herself heard over the thunder of trucks. No matter: the assembled media already know, thanks to a strategically placed story in today's Daily Telegraph, that she's offering $1 billion of federal funds to help build the long-delayed WestConnex link and alleviate western Sydney's commuting woes. Questions move on to the vexed subject of 457 visas. 'Labor has been in power for six years,' notes one journalist, 'but six months before the election you've discovered you have an issue with 457s. What do you say [to the claim] that you're just playing to people's prejudice and xenophobia?'

Two days later, Gillard is in Punchbowl, probably the suburb most closely associated with the image of a 'badlands' inhabited by gun-toting gangs. It was in Punchbowl, in the late 1990s, that rival criminal families fought over drug territory and fourteen-year-old Edward Lee was stabbed to death. More recently, a spate of shootings – some targeted, some drive-by – has reinforced the lawless reputation of Sydney's south-west.

Outside the community centre, where Gillard is attending a 'safety forum', curious locals have assembled in the car park. Overnight, there's been another shooting, but today the sun is out and Tom Krayem, who owns a Lebanese sweet shop, is handing round a tray of sticky, moist baklava. 'I like her [Gillard] very much – she's a nice person, a beautiful person, and good for the small business,' he declares.

Punchbowl is in the electorate of Watson, where 72 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home. Linda Mohamed mostly votes Labor, but is anxious about her husband's job. 'These days they're getting rid of a lot of positions. That's quite scary. I might vote Liberal, because when the Liberals were in power, there weren't that many job losses, not that I can recall.' Sam Chehab, a bus driver with three children, thinks Tony Abbott is 'more for the north [shore]', where, he tells me, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder, 'they have gold-plated footpaths and gold-plated trees'. Chehab's wife plans to vote Liberal 'because of the boat people and a lot of people on the dole'.

Just over the railway line is Punchbowl Boys High, where students – about two-thirds of them Lebanese Muslims – know a bit about ethnic stereotyping. 'They cop it,' acknowledges the principal, Jihad Dib. 'One of the boys said to me the other day, "Sir, someone called me an effing terrorist." I tell them, boys, people have an opinion of you, and the way you change that opinion is by the way you conduct yourselves. And you know what: it's unfair, but get over it… Let's turn it round and prove them wrong.'

The teenagers Dib greets at the gate each morning with a handshake and a joke, or a solicitous inquiry, come from the most challenging backgrounds. Many of them have absent fathers, and few of their parents are in work. However, since Dib took over in 2007, the barred windows and barbed wire-topped fences have disappeared. Gone, too, are the vandalism, which one year caused $90,000 of damage, and the fights, which the students themselves now quickly break up. Enrolments have soared, and so have NAPLAN results, but more crucially, the ethos and aspirations are different.

'When I first walked in here, you could feel the aggression coming at you from all directions,' recalls Dib. 'The kids just didn't feel connected. Now there's pride, and a real sense of we're all in this together, we're the Punchbowl family and we look after each other.' A man of seemingly limitless energy, Dib is rarely in his office – he roams the corridors and quadrangle, engaging in light-hearted banter, dispensing praise and ushering stragglers to their next class. 'Gentlemen, are you going to have a top day today? I want a top day, I want the very best day you've got,' he enjoins them.

As they disperse after morning recess, he remarks: 'I always tell them, it's about what you believe. You can be anything you want to be. It's non-stop motivation. Because they're always being told they're no-hopers, and they're being smashed in the media if they're Muslim or Arabic… I'm doing the opposite, saying there's nothing to stop you being the best school in the country.' Last year, 40 per cent of Punchbowl boys went on to university. The school captain, a quietly spoken Samoan, Feta Pele, wants to 'buck the stereotype that Polynesians are lazy and dumb and troublemakers, and show our people we can achieve anything if we put our minds to it'.

Across western Sydney, public schools are making a difference. In Ed Husic's Chifley electorate – which is home to Australia's largest urban Aboriginal community, and contains the vast Housing Commission estates of Mount Druitt, Shalvey and Bidwill – children are taught Aboriginal language at a playgroup attached to Hebersham Public School. Many such schools are under-resourced, but social capital fills some gaps. Punchbowl teachers gave up part of their holiday last summer to re-paint the library; computers were donated by a recruitment company. 'We're like beggars,' says Dib. 'It shouldn't be that way, but it is. We'll do whatever we can, find whatever money we need, to give these kids the best opportunities.'

 

FOR THE PAST three days and nights, Michael and Jennifer Sheringham have been living in a campervan outside Mirvac's sales office in the new suburb of Elizabeth Hills, near Liverpool, in Sydney's south-west. On Wednesday, Mirvac released twenty-six blocks of land; within half an hour, the Sheringhams had staked their claim to a 544-square-metre plot on a gentle hill, with views of parkland and a creek. Four more couples arrived and picked out blocks on the same hill, after which everyone had to remain on site until Saturday, when they would be required to pay their $1,000 deposit. The future neighbours, all camped together in the car park, whiled the time away getting to know each other.

Western Sydney is on the move – in the case of the prospective buyers at Elizabeth Hills, moving up. A once stable population has become exceedingly fluid; up to one-third of the seat of Lindsay can alter between elections, according to David Bradbury. Among those trading up are cashed-up plumbers and electricians, who once might have worked for state corporations but are contractors now or run their own small businesses, and (not infrequently) send their children to low-fee private schools. The suburb-hoppers include numerous migrants, participating in what the ABC's election analyst, Antony Green, calls the 'huge sieving by house price [which] goes on in Sydney'.

At Elizabeth Hills, Rob Russo is massaging a sore shoulder after another night in the front seat of his Honda Accord. A mechanic, he has also brought along his flat-bed truck, and on it are arranged camping chairs, a red Esky and a cafetiere bubbling away on a gas hob. 'This is our kitchen, dining table and lounge,' jokes Rob's wife, Natalie, passing around a tray of cannoli. 'We've had heaps of family and friends visiting, and we've been taking turns to go home and have showers.' The Russos – his ancestry is Italian-Maltese, hers Mauritian – are moving from Fairfield, where they live next to Rob's parents. 'We're in a cladded home, not even a brick house, and my laundry is outside,' says Natalie. 'So this is a massive step up. We wanted to be in a newer, modern estate, and the quality of the people here is good.'

Although the Australian home ownership dream may nowadays take the shape of a terrace in Penrith or a unit in Liverpool, it has lost none of its force. 'It's about owning earth,' explains Raymond Miles, who – more traditionally – has bought his late grandmother's weatherboard bungalow on a half-acre block in Toongabbie, mid-way between Blacktown and Parramatta. Miles's backyard, where lorikeets and rosellas wheel among the paperbark, macadamia and bottlebrush trees, is unusually generous: the Sheringhams' land in Elizabeth Hills is about half the size of the once standard quarter-acre block. Those who can't afford to buy property (the median house price in Blacktown is $410,000) face a lengthy Housing Commission queue or escalating private rents.

'Master-planned' estates such as Elizabeth Hills are proliferating along western Sydney's expanding urban fringe – and creating new clumps of Liberal voters. In Michelle Rowland's electorate of Greenway, where her majority is just 0.88 per cent, affluent new estates such as The Ponds can tip the balance against older suburbs like Lalor Park and Seven Hills. These outer-metropolitan areas were once cheap, but no longer; the Sheringhams are paying $360,000 for their land, and they expect to spend another $400,000 on a house. Evidence of 'white flight' into master-planned estates from thickly populated, multicultural suburbs – posited by some sociologists – is scanty; class-based flight is harder to rebut. With their often bucolic settings amid pastures and remnant bushland, the estates represent a refuge from the pitfalls of urban living. 'There's no crime, no teenage punks running around,' says Dave Osborne, walking his dog in The Ponds, where only the chirrup of birdsong disturbs the mid-afternoon tranquility. In nearby Kellyville Ridge, where the spotless pavements, tinkling fountains and well-tended grass verges evoke The Truman Show, I jump when my sat-nav instructs me to 'continue down Perfection Avenue'. I think I must have imagined it, but I didn't.

 

IT'S BILLED as one of the hottest events in town: tomorrow night's derby between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers. The stakes are high for both clubs. Having upped their winning streak to ten matches, the Wanderers need just one more victory to clinch the premiership title and a place in next month's semi-finals. Twice league champions and until this season the only club in town, Sydney FC are determined to teach the upstarts a lesson. Tickets for the clash at Parramatta Stadium sold out weeks ago.

The match will not just be about who plays better football, but – as a Nike advertisement in the stadium proclaims – 'who owns this town'. During a previous derby at Sydney FC's home ground – Allianz Stadium, in the inner east – Wanderers supporters waved banners inscribed with their postcodes, because, explains Eric Berry, a diehard fan and the team's unofficial photographer, 'they're proud Westies'. The Wanderers call their rivals 'Bling FC', scorning Sydney's hefty budget, big-name players and 'champagne set' image. 'They're latte-sipping Easties,' scoffs Berry. By contrast, the Wanderers, assembled in a hurry last year, consist almost entirely of players rejected by other clubs: a point of pride for their followers, who – in this context, at least – delight in western Sydney's underdog status.

In Parramatta, red and black banners hang from every lamp post, and even festoon the front of the Town Hall. The ever-helpful Berry has invited me to an eve-of-match training session, where he is warmly greeted by players filing out of the tunnel. The Croatian-born striker, Dino Kresinger, claps him on the back. 'How's it going, mate, great to see you!' 'What are you doing here, they let you in?' jests the Lebanese-Australian Tarek Elrich. Germany's Jérome Polenz is talking to Berry's seventeen-year-old son, Jake, along with Youssouf Hersi, an Ethiopian-born Dutchman, Aaron Mooy, a Dutch-Australian, and the captain, Sydney-born Michael Beauchamp. 'They're a real League of Nations team,' observes Berry, as the squad – which includes Kosovan-born Labinot Haliti, who came to Australia as a refugee – starts limbering up.

The players, says Berry, 'consistently go out of their way to be the nicest bunch of bastards you could hope to meet… These are the superstars in the sport I worship, but they're real people, with no airs and graces. Even Shinji [Ono, the Wanderers' marquee player and one of the biggest names in Asian football] always says g'day.' Jake relates: 'One of the first training sessions I ever went to with Dad, all of them just crowded around us and started saying hello and talking to us. I was just stunned.'

Before putting the Wanderers together, the Football Federation Australia held a series of community forums in western Sydney, soliciting views on everything from the preferred name for a new club to its colours, strip, home base and even style of play. Berry remembers: 'We wanted a team that attacks all the time, a style of football that reflects our area, which is solid, dependable and tenacious, nothing flashy.' The FFA not only listened to fans, but delivered everything they requested, which for Sydney's west – accustomed to its destiny being determined by outsiders – was an unfamiliar, and empowering, experience. 'They've had ownership of the club since before it was born,' says the Wanderers' chief executive, Lyall Gorman.

From the start, too, the club's supporters' group – the Red and Black Bloc – have been integral to its success, firing up the atmosphere at matches with their chants, theatrics and sheer exuberance. Until a year ago, the western suburbs only had rugby league, its parochial clubs each representing just one district. The Wanderers have helped to coin a regional identity – an identity based on pride, rather than a shared sense of being excluded and looked down upon. 'We're from the streets of western Sydney,' the RBB raucously sing as they spill out of their Parramatta drinking-hole, the Woolpack Hotel, and, in a joyous, disorderly fashion, surge across town and into the stadium.

'It's really puffed the chest out, and the bit of tribalism you had [in the National Soccer League days], that's gone,' reflects Eric Berry. Sydney FC, he adds, 'didn't engage with western Sydney – they never seemed to come west of Strathfield. But the Wanderers' involvement goes right down to the grassroots. They've done skills workshops and coaching courses with African refugees; they even turned up at my local park in South Penrith where my boys [Jake and his brother, Damien] play, for the Nepean District finals.'

 

THE TEMPERATURE IN Penrith is pushing 31 degrees – nearly three degrees higher than Sydney – and it's baking in the centre of town, where a street festival is in full swing. Fiona Scott manages to look fresh and cool as she wanders purposefully along High Street, pausing to chat to stallholders, pursued by volunteers in turquoise T-shirts emblazoned with 'Fiona Scott, Liberal for Lindsay', who are handing out turquoise balloons. Advancing in the opposite direction is another group in T-shirts, theirs dark blue and stating 'We're better off with Bradbury' – and there's David Bradbury himself, in jeans and checked shirt, handing out dark blue balloons. Quite a few festival-goers, I notice, are clutching both Labor and Liberal balloons. I wonder if the two groups will collide, but they narrowly avoid each other – and then Scott vanishes, re-appearing on a flat-bed truck in the street parade, between the fire trucks and the Elvis impersonators, smiling and waving, still looking pristine. Bradbury's staff look miffed – chastising themselves, perhaps, for not booking him a spot in the parade.

I catch up with Scott later at the Liberals' stall, which is pitched outside the office of Stuart Ayres, the Penrith state MP. Three years ago, Ayres, then twenty-nine, set off a political avalanche, when he won the seat at a by-election with a swing of 25.7 per cent. Ayres became the region's only Liberal MP, and 'some of my colleagues called me West Berlin, the little blue dot in the sea of red,' he recollects, with a grin. At the 2011 state election, four more western Sydney seats fell to the Liberals, with similarly spectacular swings. Then, at the 2012 local elections, the Liberal Party seized control of a raft of councils in Sydney's west, installing Liberal mayors in places as unlikely as Campbelltown, Blacktown and Liverpool. And now their sights are set on federal seats.

Scott owns one of the area's eight thousand small businesses – a marketing firm. Penrith, she informs me, between mouthfuls of gözleme, is 'still really a country town', while Lindsay is 'an electorate that thinks with its feet… If there's a good government, they vote for it; if there's a bad government, they vote it out.' Locals are 'working hard to send their kids to school, to pay off their mortgages, to get ahead'. In 2010, reportedly, the Liberals had to bus in party workers from the north shore to help with Scott's campaign.

The previous weekend, I had joined Bradbury at a mobile office in prosperous Emu Plains, near the Nepean River. His team had pitched camp in a shady but prominent spot, and motorists honked as they drove past, some appreciatively, others not. Bradbury had already spent the morning in Glenmore Park, an area so capricious that Labor's two-party-preferred vote there has swung between 40 and 60 per cent. At Emu Plains, a man approached and, in a low, confidential voice, warned him: 'If you don't move that woman out, you're going to get rolled like you wouldn't believe. From my great-grandfather down, and my wife's great-grandfather down, we've been Labor all the way. But not any more if she's still there – even though the thought of Tony Abbott running the country frightens the absolute hell out of me.'

Bradbury listens, face set, saying nothing. When I meet him next, in his Penrith office, it's a week after what the Daily Telegraph called the 'Rudd-less coup'. When Bradbury mentions that Labor has created nearly a million jobs, I wonder why we don't hear that statistic more often. He also alludes to the pressures on 'modern families' – the ALP's latest term for aspirational voters – which is a theme taken up by the amiable Stuart Ayres, over hot chocolate and macaroons in a Penrith café. Ayres points out that while flat-screen TVs have never been cheaper, electricity and water prices are going through the roof – 'which means we can afford the things we want but not the things we need'.

Across town, I talk to Joy Innes, whose daughter, a single parent, is 'on the verge of a breakdown' after being moved on to the Newstart job-seekers' allowance. 'She's in her forties, she works part-time, she's lost over $100 a week and she's not coping,' says Innes. 'We're trying to financially support her, but we're both on the pension. My other big worry is my son, who's disabled, so I want to know whether Tony Abbott's going to fund the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme].' A self-described 'swinger', Innes is 'waiting to see some realistic, costed policies from both sides.

 

STEP, SKIP, FLOURISH of scarf, drum beat, and step, skip… On a patch of grass outside Auburn Station, the brightly dressed ladies of the Chinese Drum and Dance Group are practising their moves. It's Sunday morning, and the shops in Rawson Street – the Al Darweesh Bakery, Afrique Hair and Beauty, Shiva Indian Supermarket and Xian Jang Halal Restaurant – are only just opening their roller blinds. In the discount pharmacy, the sales assistant is wearing a burqa.

The Chinese dancers are rehearsing for Auburn's Lunar New Year festivities, which the city council – motto 'Many cultures, one community' – has recast as a multi-ethnic celebration. Among those appearing in the street parade are three Lebanese drummers, a Slovakian folk ensemble, a Karen Burmese group, an Aboriginal dance trio and a four-man band from Sierra Leone. Auburn Police's super-efficient multicultural liaison officer, Hong Ong, is marshalling proceedings.

For Billy Koroma, a forty-year-old Sierra Leonean, 'it's the whole concept of multiculturalism they talk about in Australia… You'll see the Chinese dragon but you'll hear the African tambourine.' During the formalities in Auburn Park, Barbara Perry, the state Labor MP, calls Auburn 'the place to come and see the world, and see how the world lives together'. How well, I wonder, are the communities in western Sydney really co-existing? Is there meaningful dialogue? Are barriers being broken down?

Australia, it is often said, is fortunate to have no enclaves dominated by one ethnic group. Even in Fairfield – where Vietnamese-born make up nearly one-third of Cabramatta's population – more than seventy different languages are spoken. Once known as Australia's heroin capital, Cabramatta is now touted as a migrant success story. The political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane, who grew up there in the '80s and '90s, when 'you had drug deals happening in front of you and junkies vomiting on the footpath', marvels at how 'a so-called badland ghetto can become a thriving community and tourist destination in the space of a generation'. Other areas with pockets of high ethnic concentration, such as Bankstown (12.7 per cent born in Vietnam, 7.3 per cent in Lebanon), have yet to make that transition.

Auburn – Australia's most diverse local government area – is also struggling, not least because of the sheer speed of change. More than one-quarter of residents have arrived in the past five years, many of them refugees drawn by cheap housing and settlement services. Post-war, Auburn was white, working-class territory, with the Clyde railway engineering works in neighbouring Granville one of the biggest employers. Now just 16 per cent of people claim Australian or English ancestry. The second generation moved out to Campbelltown, in the outer south-west, or Penrith, to be replaced by migrants, themselves pushed west following inner-city gentrification. Nowadays new arrivals are settling as far west as Blacktown, where Singh has superseded Smith as the most common surname, according to Michelle Rowland.

Up close, western Sydney's famous antipathy towards 'boat people' appears more nuanced than it does from afar. Like other MPs, Rowland, whom I spoke to just after the food manufacturer Rosella closed its Seven Hills factory, links it to job insecurity. Chris Bowen says: 'The people who raise this most regularly and most passionately with me are recent migrants, and often refugees themselves, who had to wait in a camp for years, and still have brothers and sisters waiting to come out… It's also about fair play: they don't think it's a fair or orderly system.' To me, the antipathy seems, above all, an expression of marginalisation. But baser impulses are easily inflamed. Julia Gillard, presumably, calculated that the anti-foreigner sentiment underlying the 457 visa clampdown – which was applauded by Pauline Hanson – would please more voters in western Sydney than it alienated.

Until he retired two years ago, John Miles, whose son, Raymond, lives around the corner from him in Toongabbie, drove a truck for Linfox, transporting aluminium cans from a factory in Revesby to the Coca-Cola Amatil bottling plant in Northmead. The area looks very different from when he moved in thirty-five years ago. What used to be Old Toongabbie's Uniting Church has become the Hindu Shakti Temple, and there's a whole mob of Indian children at the primary school where his wife, Anne, is the administration manager. Miles is friends with his Turkish neighbour, whose lawnmower he recently repaired, and he was close to a late neighbour of Italian descent, even giving a speech at his daughter's wedding. 'You get your good migrants and your bad migrants,' he says. 'Both political parties were warned not to let certain people in.' When I ask him to elaborate, he replies: 'Arabs. I'm not saying from which country.' Anne volunteers that a friend of hers works in a youth prison 'full of Arabs'; when they play ball games, the boys 'are always trying to look up her skirt'.

Conversation always seems to hit the skids at this point, reflecting two-fifths of the 513 submissions to a recent federal parliamentary inquiry into multiculturalism, which argued that Muslim values are incompatible with Australian life. An as yet unpublished study, by Jim Forrest, a human geographer with Macquarie University, has found that 'social trust' is low in Sydney's densely multicultural middle-west, but higher in less diverse, outer-western Blacktown, Campbelltown and Penrith. Interestingly, distrust is associated as much with (mainly Christian) Asian neighbours as with Muslims, which Forrest attributes to 'just a visible difference, and competition for jobs, and people feeling socially alienated'.

While the absence of ghettos is positive, says Hugh Mackay, the author and social researcher, 'in the short-term it's tricky because you've got so many cultural tributaries increasing the tensions and potential for conflict. Initially it feels like a collection of sub-cultures that don't really cohere… We've not yet had the three or four generations we need to…[develop] a common cultural heritage.' Mackay calls western Sydney 'a frontier society… It tells us the way Australia is going. It's very easy to be relaxed about multicultural society if you're living in a part of Australia that's still pretty monocultural. Whereas in western Sydney they're working out the multicultural project day by day, in a way most Australians are not called upon to do. We've already been through so much absorption of other cultures, and people start to say, how much longer can we go on? And the answer is that we can go on forever, and with the world refugee problem we probably will… We'll end up becoming even more diverse than we are now.'

 

BETWEEN 2006 AND 2011, every Australian state and territory – even traditionally monocultural Tasmania – registered a leap in the number of people born in non-Anglo countries, with Victoria (19.6 per cent) just ahead of New South Wales. Sydney, as usual, was the most popular destination for new migrants, although Melbourne was not far behind. Nineteen per cent of Australians (and nearly one in three Sydneysiders) now speak a language other than English at home, most commonly Mandarin, followed by Italian and Arabic.

John Kirkman, executive director of the Parramatta-based community arts organisation ICE (Information & Cultural Exchange), argues that 'just as migrants have refined and expanded the Australian palate, they've done the same in terms of culture. They've refined it, enriched it and made it really unique.' Hugh Mackay goes further, suggesting that 'the cultural lessons we're learning in western Sydney, and the kind of hybrid that's being created, will eventually have a wider influence on our cultural identity… Already Australians across the board are realising that if you're trying to articulate what our defining characteristic is now, it's diversity.'

At the UWS, one-third of students are from non-Anglo backgrounds. For Peter Shergold, the chancellor, 'it's like the real Australia has moved west… That's where you're seeing the multicultural diversity that is Australia today.' Jason Clare, whose seat includes Bankstown – like Fairfield and Liverpool, a first port of call for new arrivals – believes: 'This is base camp. This is where the new Australia is being made, a cosmopolitan, multicultural Australia… What we're seeing in western Sydney now is a window into the changes the rest of the country is going to face in the years ahead, and the opportunities too. Because…Australia is going to continue to become more multicultural over the next century…and in western Sydney that's one of our great assets, and one of our strategic advantages.'

It also presents challenges. Julie Owens's federal seat of Parramatta (majority 4.37 per cent) incorporates so many ethnic groups and micro-communities that she has to tackle it street by street, and even family by family. 'The other day, I came across two blocks of units which the Nepalese community had got together and bought,' she says. 'There's the Jumma people of Bangladesh, they're two families, and the Muslim community from Sri Lanka, about fifteen families. We've got a lovely community from Bhutan, and the indigenous people from Kuwait, and the Fullah people, a nomadic tribe from West Africa. We've got everything, really – groups and sub-groups, layer upon layer, it's like a lattice of these groupings – and you have to do niche campaigning because you can't reach them otherwise. We do a lot of English language work, and I do a lot of one on one. If there's a large family, I'll invite them in for morning tea.'

Her knowledge of Parramatta's multiple places of worship – from the Shia mosque in Granville, converted from an old panelbeater's shop, to the family homes where little groups of Hindus and Buddhists gather – is equally microscopic. The Bahá'ís are in South Wentworthville, the Ismailis in Northmead, the Pentecostals in Granville. Then there are the myriad sporting and community organisations, including seventeen Sudanese soccer teams who play in a competition called One Sudan, and six Lebanese community groups from six different Lebanese villages, each with a hall in Granville. Owens cautions against preconceptions. 'People assume that if you're African, you're a refugee, but they represent an enormous percentage of our health professionals. I'll knock on a large, expensive house and find I'm talking to two African doctors.'

To Owens, her electorate 'actually is Australia… This is where you can see us, in these suburbs. We have the refugees who turn up with broken hearts, and the children of migrants going to university for the first time, and people buying their first house without any of the family backing you might have in wealthier areas. People start from the beginning here in a lot of ways. We're really a community of builders, who set about making a life here, and I think we're that as a nation as well.'

In the suburb of Merrylands, where I accompany her door-knocking one Sunday morning, mansion-style homes of dizzying flamboyance stand alongside unrenovated fibro cottages. Posters advertise an upcoming festival 'celebrating what's great about western Sydney', and featuring African acrobatic displays and skills clinics by Wanderers footballers. Not for the first time – and remembering how Fiona Scott described Penrith – I wonder if the west isn't one big country town. Owens – who is assisted by three young volunteers, two Afghan Hazara brothers and a Nepalese woman – meets a Lebanese family who celebrated a wedding the previous day; their front patio is still bedecked with white gauze. A Turkish family, who are preparing for a little girl's birthday party, have put up a mini bouncy castle in their front yard; an Anglo-Australian in singlet and shorts is washing his ute; and a voluble Italian wants help getting his fig tree trimmed.

A middle-aged Labor voter grumbles that 'the types of people coming here are not the same class as before… You've got migrants who put their feet on the seats [in trains] and spit on the floor and cut their nails. You used to be able to get on a train in a white skirt or trousers… The trains are filthy now, they're putrid.' As we leave, Owens recounts how Italian and Greek migrants were denigrated when she was growing up. 'They used to say that they painted their houses blue, and concreted their yards, and worked in fish and chip shops.'

Each new community, it appears, must undergo this baptism, before – eventually, sometimes grudgingly – being accepted. Intermarriage helps. 'It was the same with the Vietnamese when I was a boy,' says Jason Clare, who grew up in Cabramatta – and in 2012 married Louise Tran, daughter of a Vietnamese boat migrant. 'They struggled with the stigma of drug gangs. Now that's all changed, and the second and third generations have become doctors and lawyers.' Clare is optimistic about the future for Australia's Muslims (who are far from being one homogenous community). 'A guy I met earlier today said to me, "My religion is Islam, my nationality is Australian. I'm an Aussie." Australia rubs off on you, whether you come from the UK or Lebanon.'

 

A SHORT DRIVE around Werriwa, once Gough Whitlam's seat, now held by the Labor left-winger Laurie Ferguson, takes you from Macquarie Links, a gated community built around an eighteen-hole golf course, to Claymore, a public housing estate so bleak it evokes comparisons with some remote Aboriginal communities, and from the brick and tile houses and industrial estates of Ingleburn to Denham Court Road, south-west Sydney's 'millionaires' row', where mansions set on a ridge have clear views all the way to the city.

Socio-economic as well as cultural diversity characterises western Sydney. The area has produced millionaires like Mark Bouris, the Punchbowl boy who founded Wizard Home Loans, but – like western Melbourne, Logan City south of Brisbane and Adelaide's northern suburbs – it also contains clusters of high unemployment and welfare dependency. In Sydney's west, manufacturing – symbolic of the 'old Australia' – still provides 13 per cent of jobs, but is slowly dwindling. Job security is no longer the norm, and 'the closer you are to the basic wage, or the more you're reliant on a jigsaw of part-time jobs, the more that job insecurity bites,' says Hugh Mackay.

In Chris Hayes's Fowler seat – the second most disadvantaged in Australia, after Lingiari in the Northern Territory – the median weekly income is $375 and unemployment is running at 9.9 per cent, nearly double the national level. The focus on Fowler (which includes Cabramatta) as an Indo-Chinese melting pot tends to mask such statistics. Hayes hosted a jobs expo in Liverpool which drew five thousand people, demonstrating, he believes, 'that people in the area want employment, they don't want to not work… It's not just about money, it's about social inclusion.' As for the 'high-end' jobs which economists argue the west sorely needs, 'what I need in my area here is some more blue-collar employment', says Hayes.

Phillip O'Neill, director of the UWS's Urban Research Centre, warns that 'what you don't want is a global city renowned for its quality of life put under threat by social division, lack of opportunity and possible growing poverty'. Even for the aspirational voters identified by Mark Latham, the former Labor leader, prosperity may be precarious. In otherwise well-off suburbs, remarks O'Neill, an economic geographer, 'you can see the unkempt places with a couple of Falcon station wagons on the lawn… The marriage could have split up and there wasn't enough wealth for each to continue a reasonable lifestyle.' High-cash incomes – of the type earned by so-called 'white-collar tradies'– are vulnerable to economic downturn. 'We did a study of mortgage distress for the Reserve Bank [in 2010], and it just re-affirmed that all housing situations are vulnerable to illness, unemployment or family break-up… [Those areas] that are sometimes described as aspirational, you also find consistently the same places showing up with the highest rates of mortgage default.'

The Melbourne-based demographer Bernard Salt is struck by Sydney's 'more intense concentrations' of multiculturalism and poverty. Contemplating his city's less troubled relationship with its own western suburbs, Salt notes that no part of Melbourne's west is more than thirty kilometres from the CBD. 'You might be poor, but you can see the CBD from Laverton and Sunshine and Broadmeadow; you're still part of Melbourne. Go to Penrith [nearly 60 kilometres from the Sydney CBD] or Blacktown, and the only time you see the Opera House or the towers of Sydney is on TV that night. You're physically removed, and culturally shunned.'

In Penrith, they have a different perspective. 'The evening sky is wonderful out here,' says Freda Whitlam. 'Such a feeling of space and beauty and clouds and sunsets.' A former teacher and school principal, Whitlam is delighted that the UWS is producing doctors from its new medical school in Campbelltown. 'When I was doing my education diploma, it struck me that any family could have brilliant children… There are plenty of brilliant people in western Sydney, and now through the university they can take advantage of the opportunities.' About one-quarter of UWS students – one-third of the western Sydney intake – are from disadvantaged backgrounds; most graduates stay on in the west. The UWS works with sixty public schools in the region, promoting the benefits of tertiary education and encouraging students, says Peter Shergold, 'to realise that university is a real possibility'.

 

ANOULACK CHANTHIVONG IS a Sydney University-educated economist with the New South Wales Department of Transport whose family came to Australia as refugees in 1984. Chanthivong was dux of his high school, and has been a Campbelltown councillor for nine years, serving a term as mayor. Clean-cut, serious-minded and articulate, he appears the ideal Labor candidate. However, when he offered himself for pre-selection for the state seat of Campbelltown in 2010, there was an awkward silence. Eventually, Labor's national executive – circumventing Chanthivong's local branch, which was strongly behind him – endorsed Nick Bleasdale, a self-employed carpenter. According to the Macarthur Advertiser, 'strong rumours [had been] circulating that New South Wales ALP bosses do not believe… local voters would vote for the Laos-born man'.

At the 2011 election, Bleasdale was defeated by the Liberals' Bryan Doyle. Two years on, Chanthivong describes Labor's machinations as 'disappointing'. As for the rumours about why he was cold-shouldered, the thirty-six-year-old merely says: 'Obviously, if that was the case, it would be abhorrent to me. I've been in Campbelltown for twenty-five years now, and I've always found it a very open and diverse community.'

Some, including Labor insiders, cite that episode as evidence the ALP has 'lost the ethnic plot'. Time was when Labor could rely on the support of migrants, but times have changed. John Howard – whose call for a curb on Asian immigration and refusal to condemn Pauline Hanson cost the Liberals the Chinese vote for twenty years – has long since departed. Aspirant, business-minded, entrepreneurial Chinese – and Filipinos, and Indians, and Lebanese, both Christian and Muslim – are switching allegiance. As Salma Khan, a Pakistani-Australian buying land for her daughter and son-in-law at Elizabeth Hills, explained, with charming candour: 'Before, we were in Labor because my husband was working in a factory. Now we have two 7-Eleven franchises and Liberals are better for business.'

As of 2012, the cities of Auburn, Liverpool and Parramatta all have Australian-Lebanese Liberal mayors. In Liverpool, an ALP stronghold for two decades, Ned Mannoun, a thirty-year-old progressive Muslim, won nearly 44 per cent of the popular vote. In his youth, the well-spoken, personable Mannoun was, briefly, a Labor Party member. 'People said, "If you want to have a future in politics in this area, you've got to be Labor."' Nowadays he is sure the Liberal Party works harder to promote ethnic talent.

Labor's links with migrant communities, painstakingly cultivated over many years, loosened following the 2007 federal election, according to one well-placed MP. While Kevin Rudd 'did fantastic stuff with Indigenous communities, and especially the Chinese at a leadership level, genuine engagement with ethnic communities went very steeply down,' says the former Rudd colleague. The Liberal Party, meanwhile – particularly under Barry O'Farrell in New South Wales – has belatedly embraced multiculturalism, and is making an unprecedented effort to woo ethnic voters. For the federal election, it has assembled an impressive cast of candidates with migrant backgrounds, including (so far) six in western Sydney, next to whom Labor's MPs look positively WASP-ish.

Dirty tactics seem to go with this contested territory. Ethnic branch-stacking scandals have embarrassed both parties. The infamous fake pamphlet circulated in Lindsay just before the 2007 election rebounded on the Liberals (who disowned it). When Ed Husic, the son of Bosnian migrants, stood in Greenway in 2004, a whispering campaign was mounted against him – or, rather, his religion. The Liberals' Louise Markus, a Hillsong Church member, won the seat. It was 'a learning experience', says Husic, federal parliament's first Muslim MP (and its first UWS graduate).

 

DERBY DAY: THE hardcore members of the Red and Black Bloc are already in place in the North Stand, a dancing, clapping, chanting, bugle-blowing, banner-waving mass of boisterous humanity. Regular fans – young guys, couples, families with kids – are sweeping in through the main gate, where the grass is dotted with orange flags left over from a Harmony Day event. Some pick up the flags and hold them aloft, along with their Wanderers scarves. 'Harmony Day: Everyone Belongs,' the little flags say.

Sitting next to me in the stands is an effervescent Tongan, Lomu Lomalito, who is here with his Lebanese friend, Fred Riman. Lomalito was 'born with a rugby ball in my hands, but I don't follow it any more, I'm a changed man,' he reveals, chuckling. 'My Islander mates are all into football, too. There's something special happening with the Wanderers; it's like magic. It's brought the west together – it's a brotherhood.'

Rugby league was the traditional sport of Sydney's west, a game for white, working-class men. As Christopher Brown, chairman of a high-powered advocacy group, the Parramatta Partnership Forum, points out: 'The ALP and rugby league used to be the great institutions of western Sydney, and for a long time there was no competition… They both took their heartlands for granted; they didn't realise the place was changing.' League got its 'wake-up call' when the AFL made a pitch for the same turf, creating the Greater Western Sydney Giants in 2010. Labor, by contrast, 'has sat there, getting smaller and smaller, just talking to unions and branch members, while the Liberals have tapped into these new communities', says Brown.

After the big build-up, the derby is a scrappy match which culminates in a 1-1 draw. Lomalito grips his head in agony, and I'm feeling quite gutted myself; I seem to have become a bit of a Wanderers fan. In the fortnight that follows, however, the Wanderers not only win the premiership, but a place in the Grand Final at Allianz Stadium – and although they go down 2-0 to the Central Coast Mariners, in front of a 42,000-strong crowd which includes Julia Gillard, their supporters end the season giddy with joy. Not only did the fledgling club excel beyond anyone's wildest dreams, but next year – as premiership title-holders – the Wanderers will be competing in the Asian Champions League.

'We're going to be playing some of the powerhouse club sides in Asia,' exults Eric Berry, who – like thousands of other fans – is already studying his 2014 diary. 'Holy hell, that's bloody amazing. Just think of it: at the start of this season we thought we'd be happy as long as they [the Wanderers] didn't get the wooden spoon. Now they're taking western Sydney to Asia, and bringing Asia to western Sydney. A team cobbled together from has-beens and nobodies showed everybody what western Sydney can do.'

5 June 2013


From Griffith Review Edition 41: Now We are Ten © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review