All roads out west lead back to 2010

Low-rent politics, immigration sloganeering and an obsession with western Sydney suggest a replay of the 2010 election campaign.

Crikey

While the other 21 million Australians look on in, at best, bemusement, but perhaps something less palatable, the major political parties get on with re-staging the 2010 election campaign in western Sydney.

That was the campaign marked by a weird alliance between politicians and the media to abandon policy substance in favour of focus-grouped slogans and cheap rhetoric around populist ideas like cutting immigration (remember the race to avoid being in favour of a 'big Australia'?). Not to mention the ghost of Kevin Rudd haunting the Gillard campaign.

Two and a half years on, not much has changed.

Politicians on both sides appear to assume that to appeal to 'western Sydney', which apparently is a monolithic entity, you have to drop your IQ a few points and/or beat up on foreigners. Like, more so than usual.

The nauseating Scott Morrison led the way last week with his attempt to exploit a rare instance of an asylum seeker being charged with a criminal offence. His leader wasn’t too far behind, blatantly lying in insisting the government "doesn’t know where they are”.

We await Morrison and Abbott committing to electronic ankle bracelets for priests and politicians, both of whom have far higher rates of criminal prosecution and yet who are allowed to roam our streets in freedom with the community none the wiser.

Labor has taken a somewhat higher road, but it, too, led to xenophobia. Julia Gillard assured western Sydney Labor supporters last night that she wanted "to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”.

Gillard’s speech was very good, even if it repeated the core theme of education, NDIS and managing the economy for workers. She again hammered the importance of accepting the impact of a high dollar and becoming more innovative and higher-skilled in response. Oddly, Joe Hockey’s attempt to grapple with the same issues in a significant speech last week wasn’t all that different (minus Gillard’s gratuitous reference to WorkChoices); Hockey even made a point of saying Australia’s high wages were a good thing.

But in tailoring the message to western Sydney, Gillard applied a gloss to her theme that could at best be described as deeply protectionist, and less charitably might be compared to an economic version of the filth Morrison is peddling. Foreign workers aren’t wanted around this neck of the woods, either if they come here on a 457 visa or if they exploit the stubbornly high dollar to out-compete our manufacturers.

Not all foreigners want to come here by boat or take our jobs, of course. Some want to import drugs. Thus, the PM announced a "National Border Targeting Centre, to target high-risk international passengers and cargo”. And, as part of her promise of "tackling gangs and guns”, she dwelt at length upon gun crime in Sydney’s west, promising a National Anti-Gang Taskforce and a National Gangs Intelligence Centre. The cost: $64 million. Thank you, taxpayers.

"This government has been working to meet the evolving threat,” she declared about guns’n’gangs.

Curious. According to the most recent report of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, violent crime is down 4.8 per cent a year in Fairfield/Liverpool, down 13 per cent a year in outer south-western Sydney, down 14 per cent a year  in inner-western Sydney, stable in central-western Sydney, down 11 per cent a year in outer-western Sydney and down 5.7 per cent a year in Blacktown. And three of those areas have recorded declines in violent crime every year for five years; the others have been stable over five years.

The bureau also noted that while there’d been a spike in drive-by shootings in April and May last year,  firearms offences were running at about the same numerical level as in 2008, despite the west’s rapidly growing population.

That is, the facts suggest the 'threat' of violent crime in western Sydney is devolving, not evolving.

Gillard was not the only one drumming up concerns about gangs and guns. Tony Abbott promised $50 million for CCTV in Sydney (never mind those Liberal concerns about privacy and freedom). As Labor’s Andrew Leigh pointed out, this was the fifth great occasion Abbott had announced his CCTV pledge. Then again, it must be a cracker of a policy if it’s worth announcing five times.

But of course that’s the problem when you target people in a specific community: they’re unlikely to be overly interested in politicians who observe the tricky line between state and federal responsibilities, preferring instead the rugged constitutional individualists who brush aside such niceties in favour of a 'just fix it' ethos.

Nor are they likely to be impressed with a politician who is foolish enough to wonder whether another $64 million, nearly all of which is ultimately about prosecuting the ceaseless 'War on Drugs', is the best value for money in terms of addressing the crime that most harms communities. Sexual assault, for example, is one of only two crimes in NSW to increase in annual terms over the last five years, but that has mainly been in regional towns, rather than in the more electorally glamorous western Sydney.

The media is lapping all this up: the country’s most senior politicians a mere 45 minutes’ drive from the CBD where virtually every major Australian media company has its headquarters, engaged in campaigning, which is far easier to cover than all that pesky policy stuff. Just capture the colour and movement, just get the vox pops. They might complain about Gillard having thrown the switch to the days of campaigning rather than the days of governing, but they love it. If only the election ad revenue would start flowing in from the political parties to bolster those 12-13 bottom lines.

So here we are, back where the 2010 campaign left off. After that campaign alienated voters so much that politicians themselves wondered what had gone wrong, many people thought that 2010 would be the nadir and things would get better. But what if they get worse?

This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on March 4. Republished with permission.