It’s a long way out to Penrith from most places in Sydney, even on the motorways that have sprung up to connect the sprawling west of Sydney. You drive at high speed for an hour and, not long before you think you’re about to hit the mountains, there you are.
I’ve come out to see David Bradbury on the stump in Lindsay, the seat he wrested off the Liberals in 2007. With Labor’s mid-year poll slump, it had been written off as likely to return to the Liberals, borne by, in Steve Fielding’s words, the “tsunami of boats” arriving at Christmas Island.
Since the Liberals preselected 33-year old marketing manager Fiona Scott, Bradbury’s chances appear to have improved. Scott stumbled in her initial public outings and has kept a low profile since. I don’t spot a single poster of Scott the whole time I’m in the area.
Unlike much of outer western Sydney, Penrith has history, 200 years of it, apparent even from driving down High Street, the main drag. The local Anglican church, 170 years old, is on the left. On the right, a row of old terrace houses seemingly cut-and-pasted from inner Sydney. Stay on High Street and eventually you get to a more recent institutional arrival, Westfield Penrith. But before you get there, you pass the creative destruction of previous retail conglomeration efforts — half-empty malls, boarded-up shopfronts, empty shops run by cranky-looking proprietors.
It’s not the harbinger of a depressed economy, however; even though unemployment in outer-western Sydney is higher than the national average, it’s still at levels that would have been marvelled at in the 1990s.
It’s into one of these retail battlefields that Bradbury comes, for a long-standing ‘Pollies for Small Business’ event — he’s spending some time working behind the counter at Linda’s Broadwalk Café. The cafe is between two beauty salons and across from what used to be a third. Bradbury arrives, dons an apron and is straight into it, though he’s missed the lunchtime rush so he gets to clear tables, clean bench tops and have a lesson on working the coffee machine. The ‘Broadwalk’, being off the main drag, isn’t overrun with traffic, although Linda says she gets plenty of custom from people using the car park on the other side and heading through to High Street.
She and her partner, who runs a scrap-metal business, have done a two-year business basics course and have done better than they expected, possibly because they serve good coffee. Outside, another retailer wanders out of his shop and complains to Bradbury’s staff about people using a nearby cement plant holder as an ashtray. They get his details and promise to raise it with the local council, of which Bradbury used to be mayor. Retail politics, literally.
Heading back to his office, Bradbury gives his potted bio — born and raised across in Fairfield, Arts-Law at Sydney Uni (the foundation for many a great career), into local governments politics at a young age, a rapid rise in tax law at Blake Dawson Waldron, serial goes at winning Lindsay.
A loitering retailer buttonholes him as we walk to complain about the GST and why it’s levied on services. He agrees the administrative burden needs to be looked at but says the tax is 10 years old and earns vast amounts of money for the states. The retailer — a hairdresser — complains that tradesmen offer him a price “with GST” or “without GST”.
“The GST was supposed to stop the cash economy,” Bradbury says, the former tax lawyer coming to the fore in a flash. “Instead it’s just quantified the cash economy at 10%. If tradesmen do that, always ask for a receipt from them.”
He insists cost-of-living issues are real for people in Lindsay, and that the Liberals are being disingenuous with their company tax policy to both increase and decrease taxes. Next to us, a parking dispute briefly teeters on the brink of violence as two men demand that each get out of their face. A policeman intervenes, calmly endures some abuse from an enraged motorist, and restores order. Bradbury has to be dragged into his office by his staff, not due to Crikey’s charm but by his habit of appearing unwilling to stop talking to people, a handy knack for a politician, whether innate or acquired.
Lindsay was previously held by Jackie Kelly, splendidly described by Christian Kerr as “that tribune of Howard’s battlers”. Kelly was a deeply unpleasant piece of work, but seized and made the seat unshakably her own until Howard’s fading fortunes saw her retire in favour of her staffer Karen Chijoff in 2007. The leaflet affair and WorkChoices did the rest, giving Bradbury a handy win at his third attempt.
But the collapse in Labor’s fortunes has left his hold precarious. Penrith is a tough town and, Bradbury says, very conscious of its marginal status. He is smart, articulate and engaging — altogether smarter than a few Cabinet ministers — but whether he’s got the mongrel that made Kelly a formidable local member is not clear.
And it may not be clear for some time yet. There seems general indifference to the looming election. “I know the date,” said one woman Crikey spoke to. “It’s … August 21. I know because some friends have a housewarming that night.”
“I liked Kevin ’07,” a small businessman says, perhaps ominously for Bradbury’s chances. “Most of my friends don’t vote,” a young woman says. Curiously, there’s little sign of the famed anger towards asylum seekers. But there are a lot of young families out here, at least judging by the plethora of prams you dodge as you move about. Both sides’ pitch on cost-of-living issues seems particularly well-targeted for electorates like Lindsay.
But today, at least, Bradbury has back-up.
Two hours later we’re down the road at St Mary Village shopping centre. There’s a Coles and a Woolies, a food court and sundry other shops; it could be any mall in the country. Bradbury arrives to meet-and-greet the after-school shoppers. He’s brought a friend — Bob Hawke has joined him, like Hawke is joining many candidates in this election, defying his advanced years to hit the hustings. Blanche has joined him as well.
Hawke might be showing his age — “CRIKEY!” says D’Alpuget when he fails to hear my introduction — but He’s Still Got It. It starts slowly — St Mary’s Village isn’t exactly chockers — but within a few minutes Hawke is stuck because so many people want to have their photos taken with him. There’s lots of middle-aged women (several kisses from Bob) but plenty of young families, too. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for a simpler age, a time when politicians were real leaders.
Or perhaps it’s just that famous charisma, still fully-functional after all these years. “Vote for this bloke,” says Hawke, pointing to Bradbury, as people snap away. You can literally see Hawke’s still-strong instinct for working a crowd in action, the way he looks around for the next opportunity (eyes occasionally flicking to Blanche for assurance) and how he sums up how favourable a reaction he’ll get. Bradbury looks like a kid on work experience in comparison, but appears delighted.
“Can I help you, sir?” a young man asks me from behind an ice-cream counter. “Sorry mate, I’m just watching the celebrity go past,” I respond as Hawke moves past, having just spent a minute in conversation with a jeweler who rushed out from behind her counter to greet him.
“That’s the former prime minister Bob Hawke,” I say.
“Really? It’s great to be 18 and have no idea who these people are,” the bloke says, watching the entourage move away.