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Jul 30, 2010

In Penrith, Bob aside, who cares?

The marginal seat of Lindsay, in Sydney's outer-west, is crucial to Labor's chances of seeing off a resurgent Liberal Party. Bernard Keane hit the hustings with Bob Hawke.

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.

“Celebrity?”

“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.

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29 comments

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29 thoughts on “In Penrith, Bob aside, who cares?

  1. antoni

    I am a little confused. It seems everyone cared except the ice-cream guy. Am I missing something or was the temptation of the headline too much?

  2. Stiofan

    “It’s a long way out to Penrith from most places in Sydney”

    FFS, why didn’t you just say that you can’t get a decent cup of coffee in Penrith? This is typical of the Eastern Suburbs view of the world that dominates the Fairfax press (and, therefore, most mainstream commentary on Sydney). And why did you drive to Penrith? The train from Central takes only a hour (or do Crikey’s green credentials not operate west of George Street?).

  3. Acidic Muse

    You spend an entire day driving out to Penrith to get this story, Bernard?

    Are you pitching for a job at Woman’s Weekly or Cosmo FFS

    Didn’t anyone tell you that most western Sydney swing voters decide who they’re going to vote for based on how much they win or lose on the pokies at Rooty Hills RSL or Penrith Panthers the night before the election?

    On week days you can find the plenty of the people most pissed off about Assylum Seekers in any dingy bar or TAB out beyond the Black Stump otherwise known as Paramatta

    I really do hope you’re right about Fiona Scott having already blotted her copybook out there, I’ve already written off as a coalition gain on the basis that at least 50% of the men under 40 will vote for the candidate they consider most “rootable” and 50% of the anglos over 40 actually seem to think that all of their Muslim neighbours arrived on boats.

  4. shepherdmarilyn

    WEll the notion that a boat with a few refugees arriving from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka seriously has anything to do with anyone in Sydney when they are more than 5,000 km away is absurd.

    I saw that silly little girl last night parrot “we have to stop the boats” seemingly without the hint of a clue of what that means.

  5. Stiofan

    @ACIDIC MUSE, I presume that you’re not from Western Sydney. I was educated in a comprehensive in Penrith, and any of the blokes I went to school with would have produced a more literate piece of writing than your garbled rant.

  6. Stiofan

    And it was the voters of Penrith who dumped the Libs because of their anti-Muslim tactics during the last Federal election!

  7. Aphra

    @ShepherdMarilyn – I usually agree with all you say but I cavil at your calling Fiona Scott a ‘silly little girl’. She’s a woman, albeit a conservative one, standing for election to parliament. She has not been a girl, silly or otherwise, since she was 14.

    @Stiofan – I’m with you. I like your phrase ‘eastern suburbs view of the world’, particularly. Some of this country’s eminent men and women hail from this alleged Slough of Despond, the western suburbs of Sydney, not that you’d ever know it from the sneering and supercilious attitude of the MSM amongst others, who really should know better.

  8. Tom

    @APHRA – while I too agree with a majority of the sentiment of what ShepherdMarilyn says, she certainly does have a pretty blunt delivery mechanism. That said, on subject, she’s spot on and I have to say I couldn’t have put it better myself.

  9. Stiofan

    @TOM, so what you’re saying is that it’s OK to make sexist and demeaning comments as long as they’re directed at females who are in the Liberal Party?

  10. Acidic Muse

    @Stiofan

    Last time I checked, we didn’t have comprehensive schools in Australia so I’m assuming you either you mean Penrith, Cumbria, UK or your a huge fan of Grange Hill.

    The truth in this instance may be a somewhat bitter pill for the bogans of Brisbane and Western Sydney to swallow, but few other Australian’s are in any doubt which particularly psycho demographics are being targeted by both major parties campaigns in the most marginal of outer suburban seats in play.

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