As I pointed out on Monday, Sydney’s suburbs, more than those of the other capitals, tend to divide quite sharply between the rich and the poor. The rich, of course, will always be looked after; their votes may not be in doubt, but they have other ways of exerting influence. But the poor, corralled into safe Labor seats, have been ignored by both sides of politics.
So, welcome to south-western Sydney: a bloc of 11 seats, all Labor-held and all, apart from the southern end where the region adjoins the southern highlands, historically safe. With no disrespect at all to those who live here (and who have been so poorly served by their governments), it’s a depressing place; its endless tracts seem to mimic the worst features of American suburbia, but without the wealth of the US behind it.
The two marginals in the south, Wollondilly (3.3%) and Camden (3.9%), can be written off immediately; the Liberals should have won them last time. At the other extreme, six of the seats are among Labor’s safest, with margins above 18% — Lakemba is the safest in the state with 34%.
Yet even within this group there are doubts. The sitting members in Bankstown (25.4%) and Campbelltown (18.5%) have departed, leading The Sydney Morning Herald at least to put the latter in the doubtful column. And while Cabramatta’s margin of 29.0% based on the last election might look healthy, at the 2008 by-election it fell to 7.2%.
The three seats with more modest margins are a mixed bag. Macquarie Fields (11.1%) and Smithfield (15.5%) have some slightly more affluent areas on their semi-rural fringe, which gives some respectability to the Liberal vote; Macquarie Fields recorded one the state’s biggest anti-Labor swings in 2007. East Hills (14.1%) on the other hand consists of more established suburbs, bordering the more middle-class territory of the St George region.
The ALP will probably still hold the majority of these eleven seats after Saturday — but the fact I feel the need to say “probably” shows you how low Labor has sunk.
Barry O’Farrell’s opposition has better prospects to Sydney’s south: in St George and beyond it in Sutherland shire. The three St George seats — Rockdale (10.3%), Oatley (14.4%) and Kogarah (17.7%) — are all in the target range; although traditionally Labor, all have been marginal seats in the past and their current margins are a bit unrealistic. (Frank Sartor has already bailed from Rockdale.)
But while St George will at least be a contest, there’s little doubt about the seats in Sutherland, south of the Georges River. Menai and Miranda, which Labor narrowly held onto last time, are in the bag for the opposition (both sitting members are retiring), and the slightly safer Heathcote (8.8%), which extends into the northern Illawarra, is another almost certain gain. (Sutherland shire also has a safe Liberal seat, Cronulla – the only seat they won anywhere in the south or west in 2007.)
At the last election, I said that the southern and south-western suburbs were the only places without any seats of real interest. This time, by contrast, they are the most fascinating areas to watch: not because they will be critical to a Coalition victory — O’Farrell could win government without making inroads here at all — but to see just how badly Labor has lost command of its heartland.