Last stand at Rooty Hill or can Gillard find a way to win the west?

IT'S 9am on the commuter drive on Sydney's choked M4 motorway and on radio 2GB, presenter Ray Hadley has one message for the Prime Minister, who has just announced her intention to spend a week in Sydney's west: Don't bother. "The thought that . . . just because you live west of the Gladesville bridge that you're some sort of Neanderthal and you're not real smart, that's gone out with dancing pumps," Hadley says.

IT'S 9am on the commuter drive on Sydney's choked M4 motorway and on radio 2GB, presenter Ray Hadley has one message for the Prime Minister, who has just announced her intention to spend a week in Sydney's west: Don't bother. "The thought that . . . just because you live west of the Gladesville bridge that you're some sort of Neanderthal and you're not real smart, that's gone out with dancing pumps," Hadley says.

"I mean the people out there are saying things like . . . 'What a stunt'."

On Sunday night the Prime Minister commences her "stunt" - to embed herself at Rooty Hill for the week. She will check into the Novotel and undertake a listening tour of Sydney's west, a 9000 square kilometre geographic area that encompasses about 12 electorates - four of them marginal and therefore crucial to Labor's hold on government.

A fresh poll out on Saturday, by ReachTel, shows the government faces a wipeout in western Sydney.

The west, an area that is as slippery to define as "Australia" or "Melbourne", teems with ethnic pockets but is also home to one of the most Anglo electorates in the state (Lindsay). It houses some of the state's poorest citizens in places like Mount Druitt and Macquarie Fields, and some of its most affluent in Castle Hill and Kellyville. It is manicured suburban gardens, Islamic bookstores, churches, mosques, a Hindu temple, a Penrith Panthers club, some of the country's most exquisite Victorian architecture, a world-class theatre and soon, on the Prospect Reservoir site, a new Wet-n-Wild theme park.

It is beautiful and friendly, traffic-choked and marred by drive-by shootings. The first rule about the western suburbs: you can not talk about "the Western Suburbs".

"It's an economy the size of Melbourne," says the Labor member for Parramatta, Julie Owens, suppressing a sigh. "It's got two million people west of Parramatta. It's bigger than Brisbane and the economy is bigger than South Australia . . . it's as complex as any large city.

"We're as diverse as you can be. We also know that we are the engine. We are the place where people buy their first home because they can afford it. We are the place where the first child in the family goes to university.

"To call it one western Sydney is wrong."

But there are some reasons, Owens admits, why politicians and the media generalise about the west in a way that they don't when it comes to other urban hubs.

Because unlike Brisbane, Melbourne, South Australia, or its more glamorous neighbour, (non-western) Sydney, western Sydney has a history of being ignored.

Large tracts of it didn't get sewerage until the 1970s. Its first hospital, Westmead, was built in 1978 and despite the fact that western Sydney had the highest proportion of university-aged people in the country in the postwar period, it didn't get its own university until 1989.

"There is a legitimate chip on the shoulder that dates back a long time," says Owens.

But this chip is becoming less and less justified, something Hadley referred to obliquely in his fiery 2GB editorial.

Because while the west may have been historically disadvantaged, the Labor heartland of old is changing. In 2010-11, western Sydney's gross regional product was $78.2 billion. The region is evolving as aspirational immigrants send their children to private schools, as manufacturing workers turn to trades and set up their own small businesses, and as high inner-city housing prices push more educated professionals out to the suburbs.

That has profound effects on the traditional Labor voting base and turns western Sydney into a battleground for the major parties. Many in the rest of Sydney and Australia have not yet caught up with the economic and social changes happening in the west. But politicians have to respond more quickly, because this evolution changes the story of how the west will be won.

ON PENRITH High Street, it's two degrees hotter than it is in the CBD and locals hug the shade as they do their shopping, ambling past discount variety stores, pawn shops, small retail outlets and cafes.

Pensioners Bob and Barbara Van der Heyden have stopped for a coffee at Nepean Pizza and Chips when they're approached by the Liberal candidate for Lindsay, Fiona Scott.

Like any conscientious aspiring candidate, Scott spends most of her time talking to what politicians refer to as "real people", or in the newest Labor parlance, "modern families". They care little for the "economy of the future" narratives government strategists create, and a lot about electricity bills, cost of living, healthcare, education, disability insurance and sometimes things as simple as whether or not their street is well lit.

"The cost of living is worse here than it is in Europe," says the Holland-born Mr van der Heyden. "I think it's self-inflicted, in a way. We were taught at school that this is the lucky country. This isn't the lucky country at all. It was built on hard work. I think it should be the country of opportunity, not luck."

Scott, a personable 36-year-old marketing manager who narrowly missed out on winning Lindsay at the 2010 election, asks the couple if they turned on their airconditioning over summer.

"I'm not game. We got a $650 electricity bill last quarter," Mr van der Heyden says, although he admits that on Sydney's notorious 47 degree January day, the couple did use the airconditioning in their bedroom, where they huddled until the heat passed.

He says he will vote for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and criticises the government for spending too much money on foreign aid. "Look after our own backyard first."

Scott says that cost of living is the main issue of concern to the voters of Lindsay, a large "proudly parochial" electorate that takes in the urban centre of Penrith and is literally over-shadowed by the Blue Mountains. People worry over their electricity bills and do not feel the carbon tax assistance has "gotten to them".

The asylum seeker issue is raised "rarely", she says. "What people are concerned about here is the lack of infrastructure . . . they want to see the right infrastructure delivered here . . . before they see lots of immigration come into the country, which just makes things harder when it's put out here."

We meet local member David Bradbury across town at the Centro shopping plaza, which, unlike the newer Westfield with its Apple Store and its Sunglass Hut, feels like it has less money pumping through it. It has a 24-hour Kmart and a clutch of women sharing a sociable cigarette at an outdoor cafe.

Bev Winch, a Labor-voting pensioner who volunteers that she likes the Prime Minister's new spectacles, says Gillard is "doing good". She dismisses the carbon tax with a wave of her hand - "Oh, I don't see it".

At the next table, 64-year-old retiree Mairead Stynes is less forgiving. "Too little too late," she says of the Prime Minister's trip to the west. "It's a joke. A visit to Rooty Hill is not going to fix a joke."

Joining us at the cafe, Bradbury points out his electorate, which he has represented since booting out the Liberals' Jackie Kelly in 2007, encompasses million-dollar waterfront homes on the Nepean River as well as some of the most concentrated housing commission blocks in the state. It also has residential areas with homes on one and five acre blocks. Since its creation in 1984, Lindsay has been held by the government of the day.

"I think people over-egg the Labor heartland thing," he says. Bradbury says pricing carbon has been "a big one" for his electorate, and while concern has dissipated since the introduction of the carbon tax, there are "still a lot of people who wish we wouldn't do it".

Climbing north from Parramatta to Lalor Park on the Old Windsor Road, traffic is heavy even against the peak-hour tide. On radio, Hadley breaks off for the news headlines. A pregnant woman has been turned away from Nepean Hospital and told to "suck it up, princess" when she complained of labour pains. An asylum seeker has been charged with indecent assault on a university student. Last night a woman was terrorised at gun-point in her Ashcroft home.

At Lalor Park shopping centre, Frederick Keetch, an 86-year old pensioner and former 10-pound Pom is making his slow way to his newsagent, where he won't be buying what he calls "the lie sheet" (The Daily Telegraph).

Stopping to lean on his walking stick, Mr Keetch says when he came to Australia he was housed in a tent and that asylum seekers these days are in "paradise". He complains about the lack of a bus stop on the road near his house, and local member for Greenway Michelle Rowland assures him "we will get one for you".

A small crowd gathers around Rowland, who holds the seat on a margin of less than 1 per cent. She greets many of the passers-by by name (one of whom includes her elderly father, also a local: "Oh hi dad!").

Kym Lowe, a lifetime Labor voter, says the party has ruined its electoral chances by bringing its supporters up in the world. "It's only because people are doing so well," he says of Labor's poor standing in parts of the west. "They start off voting Labor and when they get a few bob they turn Liberal."

The economic disadvantage of Lalor Park is felt in the housing commission flats, where there was a murder last year, and the graffiti-covered skate park across the road from the shops, but the community here is strong and proud.

It is incredibly friendly to walk around, and local community workers such as Churches of Christ minister John Crawford, who runs a charity clothing shop, and Rebecca Lewis, secretary of the Lalor Park Community Garden, plough love and care into the area.

"Do you think the Liberals are going to fund a community garden?" asks Rowland.

She may doubt the Liberals' commitment to the community garden, but Abbott has promised $1.5 billion in funding to the Westconnex road project, which will link the west with the Port Botany airport area.

In the more affluent parts of Greenway, where commuters are battling traffic to the city (such a commuter can expect to pay four tolls every day), any commitment to road funding would presumably be well received.

An hour's drive south, battling traffic along the M4 and Rookwood Road, is Bankstown, the multicultural suburban hub at the heart of Labor MP Jason Clare's electorate, Blaxland.

Over beef pho at Gia Hoi on the main street (which Clare manfully orders in Vietnamese, his wife's family's language), the 40-year-old talks about the peculiarities of his electorate, which he holds on a strong margin of 12 per cent.

It has strong Arabic and Vietnamese communities, a proud sporting tradition led by the Bankstown Sports Club, the highest rate of diabetes in the country and an unemployment rate of 10 per cent - double the national rate.

Blaxland, which used to be Paul Keating's seat, is where most of Sydney's recent drive-by shootings have taken place.

Clare's constituents worry about crime. They don't care about the carbon tax, he says, but the reforms it has paid for - specifically the tripling of the tax-free threshold - are important to the many low-income earners in the area.

Is there any point trying to sell carbon pricing in Blaxland as a positive environmental or jobs-creation reform?

Clare smiles.

"For different parts of the country they will be more interested in that," he says.

"Here it's bread-and-butter issues. It's health, it's education, it's crime, it's how much money is in my pocket. They're the things that people worry about every day."

Out on the street, rain has begun sheeting down, and with it the realisation that the afternoon's traffic will be worse. On talkback radio, the Prime Minister is now being criticised for staying in the west and avoiding the commuter congestion its residents deal with every day.

When Canberra's caravan swings into Rooty Hill next week, the people of the west will be watching, for once, from very close quarters. And, as Clare says, they are very tough judges.

THE DODGY DOZEN 12 ALP SEATS UNDER THREAT IN WESTERN SYDNEY

LINDSAY

1.1% David Bradbury

Centred on Penrith

9.6% tertiary educated

25.2% born overseas

3.9% born in England

$1347 p/wk income

$1962 p/mth mortgage

CHIFLEY

12.3% Ed Husic

Includes Rooty Hill, Blacktown, Mount Druitt

9.6% tertiary educated

44% born overseas

8.6% born in Philippines

$1205 p/wk income

$1950 p/mth mortgage

GREENWAY

0.9%

Michelle Rowland

Riverstone to Pendle Hill

13.1% tertiary educated

41.5% born overseas

7.7% born in India

$1593 p/wk income

$2200 p/mth mortgage

PARRAMATTA

4.4%

Julie Owens

Centred on Parramatta

17.8% tertiary educated

55.6% born overseas

10.3% born in India

$1268 p/wk income

$2000 p/mth mortgage

REID

2.7%

John Murphy

Drummoyne to Auburn

20.8% tertiary educated

55.1% born overseas

9.4% born in China

$1493 p/wk income

$2300 p/mth mortgage

MCMAHON

7.8%

Chris Bowen

Sydney fringe, heading west from Fairfield.

12.5% tertiary educated

46.5% born overseas

8.1% born in Iraq

$1289 p/wk income

$2000 p/mth mortgage

FOWLER

8.8%

Chris Hayes

Includes Cabramatta and Liverpool

11.2% tertiary educated

55.6% born overseas

15.1% born in Iraq

$1031 p/wk income

$1800 p/mth mortgage

WERRIWA

6.8%

Laurie Ferguson

Centred on Campbelltown

10.5% tertiary educated

42% born overseas

3.3% born in Fiji

$1311 p/wk income

$2000 p/mth mortgage

BLAXLAND

12.2%

Jason Clare

Includes Bankstown,

Fairfield East, Regents Park

11.6% tertiary educated

50.9% born overseas

8.7% born in Vietnam

7.4% born in Lebanon

$964 p/wk income

$935 p/mth mortgage

BANKS

1.5%

Daryl Melham

Hurstville to Revesby

18.7% tertiary educated

45.4% born overseas

12.6% born in China

$1264 p/wk income

$2167 p/mth mort

BARTON

6.9%

Robert McClelland

(retiring)

Kogarah, Earlwood and Beverley Hills

16.9% tertiary educated

48.3% born overseas

6.3% born in China

$1312 p/wk income

$2200 p/mth mortgage

WATSON

9.1%

Tony Burke

Includes Strathfield, Canterbury, Lakemba

9.6% tertiary educated

55.5% born overseas

7.2% born in China

6.9% born in Lebanon

$1044 p/wk income

$2000 p/mth mortgage

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