Waiting for one of the two Sydney trains per hour at Riverstone — Rivston, Rivo — station, a long platform shoved up against a century-old station house, in the very out west. Leanne, 50s, her voice still holding a slight rural twang, is talking about education and healthcare, and in doing so illustrating the uphill battle faced by the Rudd government — or indeed any outfit campaigning for re-election.
“What I want is better hospital services,” she says in that vaguely somnolent way of the morning commuter. It’s half-past seven, about 30 people on the platform, winter sunshine through the gumtrees opposite, fields that side, exurbia this. Was she pleased with the recent $30 million Blacktown hospital upgrade? “I didn’t know about that.” Education? “I just think we need more funding for government schools.” What does she think of Gonski? “Gonski?” She looks at me blankly. She’s holding an orange ALP leaflet — “Who’s delivering for our future?” — she’s just been handed, claiming credit for all these things. They better hope she reads it.
Outside, in the station door, local MP Michelle Rowland, rugged up in charcoal chain store windcheater, is working the new arrivals streaming through the ticket hall. Short, bouncy, energetic, with big hair and a Pacific complexion, she has the air of an impossibly sunnier place than this junction of station, beerbarn and Cashline pawn shop. She’s engaging but not getting much back. “Hello, would you like a leaflet?” “Hello hello hello.” She’s been doing this since 6am. It’s Tuesday morning. Twenty-four hours after this, Kevin Rudd would swoop into the region to appear with the leedle childrenz, and pour out some kiddiecare pork, a phrase I had to disable my filter to type out. But Scoop Rundle came here the day before, when Rowland was talking pretty much to the kurrajongs, and then spiked the story for 24 hours to polish it. So here we are.
Which doesn’t matter, because what I really wanted to see was how a local MP in an ultra-marginal seat, someone fighting for their life, and possibly for the government, actually interacts with the public on a dawn canvass. Barely, is the answer. For all her enthusiasm, Rowland may as well be giving out dental insurance fliers. In the States, she would have copped half-a-dozen harangues about death panels, Benghazi and the gold standard by now. Here no one’s rude, but no one’s really engaged either, shuffling with that look of the Australian commuter, a vague Anzac-spirit resignation in the face of underservicing.
Then a flurry of excitement. A heavyset man in a crisp white shirt, and a mildly querulous tone: “Michelle, can I talk to you?” Yes, please, please, anyone. But it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the neat fatty partnered by a mildly depressed young man, clutching a sheaf of Watchtowers, who want to sort out territory. It’s all very reasonable. A kid passes on the way to school. “Hi Michelle,” he yells. “Hi! How’s your mum?” “She’s good!” “You paid that kid,” I say, “he’s been waiting behind the bus shelter to do his walk through.” “No no no,” she laughs nervously, as her volunteer — Chris? Craig? I’ve got to buy a notebook — talks into a microphone in his wrist: “Cancel the show in the Old Barn! Cancel the show in the old Barn! Gatekeeper is on to us!’ I may have imagined that.
It was very early — that is, a time when people with a job had been up for an hour or so. Turns out to be the most sustained engagement of the hour. Day two of the election that will either cement Labor’s domination of nearly half-a-century of Australian leadership, or allow an Abbott government to claim the last two decades for the Coalition, and wind up the Australian settlement for good, we’re in a knife-edge electorate, and there’s all the energy of, I dunno, Australian soccer.
“When the tilde falls, Australian social democracy will have officially left the electorate. On one of the two trains per hour.”
Riverstone, Rivston, Rivo, one of the two-dozen-or-so stations on the line that runs through the electorate of Greenway, a skein of western heartland, exurb, boomburg and remnant rural area on the outer north-west of Sydney. Starting in west Parramatta, and running through our old friend Blacktown, up the line through old farm towns to Richmond, Greenway also crosses to the new builds, places like the Ponds, winding McMansion cul-de-sacs laid out in a creek basin, and crosses all the way to Seven Hills Jesusland. The electorate’s named after Francis Greenway, usually known as our first architect, really our first chancer — a man who, having been transported for fleecing his clients, proceeded to become colony architect and then get sacked for fleecing the colony. Were he alive today, he’d be stacking the council and building malls on short-sold public land. He’s an appropriate patron saint for an electorate that has been sliced and diced by property development, once was community now is investment opportunity. That falls hard and soft: the Ponds has the highest median house price in the country, this stretch of Greenway, remains a half-hearted exurb cum country village, underserviced, underattended to.
That’s not Rowland’s fault. She’s been MP here since 2010, half-Fijian, a lifelong local res and former Labor lawyer, and checkout chick for years before that, perhaps the essence of middle Australia made good. Before her, the seat was dominated by Louise Markus, a Liberal and Hillsong member, and a section of the congregation served as part of her base. Hillsong’s still in Greenway, but the base was redrawn into Robertson, and Markus went with them. Now the Liberal candidate is helpless boob Jaymes Diaz, scion of the Blacktown Little Manila machine, who may have already punted the seat with a now-world-famous walkabout meltdown where he couldn’t name any one of the six points in the Opposition’s “sink the boats” policy.
Rowland’s more assured, though she never gets much of a chance to show her chops at the canvass. Indeed, the only punter buttonholing her turns out to be the local maddie, whom she generously gives the time of day to, as he talks softly about the planets and fluoridation or something. “He says he was the manager of the National Australia Bank,” Craig/Colin/Secheverell says. “What, and he had some sort of breakdown?” “No, I mean he’s delusional. He just thinks he was the National Australia Bank manager.” Maybe that’s the essence of Middle Australia made good, where the disturbed have fantasies, not of being Jesus or Napoleon but that of being a regional bank manager, down to specifing the institution concerned (“I’d never be a Westpac manager, I mean I’m not crazy”).
It’s the only real nibble she gets. I had been hoping to simply eavesdrop, scarf up the arguments. But no one’s much interested, and there’s no alternative but to voxpop, first of the campaign, the usual ache in the gut as you push yourselves into people’s lives. It’s what you suspect, all over the shop. For every astute observer — like Vikki the medical receptionist, Labor-leaning but wanting a more centrist fiscal policy and a more Liberal asylum-seeker one; “we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing” — there’s three or four who can’t disentangle state from federal issues from local issues. Steve, a student, wants a break on uni fees, so he won’t be starting his working life, three years behind, fufty grand in hock, and can one day live within cooee of the actual city of Sydney. Someone mentions the overpass wanted, to stop the centre of this old farming town becoming a traffic swamp. Something has to be done about the ’60s-era mall looming over the station, still owned by Blacktown City Council from an era of development as vanished as the world of the Pharoahs. Marketown, it’s called, the red block lettering on its industrial chimney-style roof slowly coming away. Government-funded shopping centres are a relic of the post-war Scandinavian era of Oz development, when everyone trooped to Stockholm to see what they were doing next.Places like “Marketown” were intended as civic centres — they would bundle up commercial and civic functions in one place; serve as a social focus. Now it’s half-empty, save for a discount supermarket, a newsie, a beauty something, and a tobacconists, defiantly named “Free Choice”, whose morose owner, replete with Lynryd Skynryd ‘Bama ‘tache, sits in front of a series of white-shuttered cabinets, and posters of gangrenous limb-stumps. “Statistown, they should call it,” I quipped to no one in particular, the thing so forlorn and dingy I made a mental note to immediately nominate it to the national heritage register. “They want to pull it down, rebuild, but there’s no money, because the government owns it,” says the ageing Greek woman, the ancient Greek, who runs the cafe beside it. Her even older husband, bent double, like a paperclip, is behind her, loading up the frier. They’ve owned the place for decades, they rent it out, then take it back over whenever the latest tenant runs it into the ground, build the business up again, sell it off again. Lifelong Liberals, always have been, “but I don’t like Abbott. Michelle, I like. She’s much better than … τι είναι το όνομά του?” “David.” “David, the state member [it’s actually Kevin].” Two votes to be detached, but how? I get a spring roll — not a Chico, the latte of the bain marie — my first since being back, a glove of hard hot fat around a sluice of burning cabbage slurry, which has always been, to me, the taste of Australia, and head back to the station, for a last pass.
Rowland has been trapped by the maddie for 10 minutes by my count, which is generous and well-meaning, but also ensures that a dozen voters sail through the gates uncanvassed. I work the platform for a last pass, trying out the banner policies the government has been leading to the election with. The NBN? “The NBN is going to cost me $300 in a landline.” Margaret says I have no idea if that is true, but she seems to believe it. Gonski? Three people, asked quickfire in a row, can tell me what Gonski is, its content. Yet all of them nominate education as a priority. Gonski gonski gonski. These stilted, awkward exchanges are a measure of the political-public disconnect, policy handed down on high as a series of opaque nicknames — Gonski, NBN, NDIS — without a lot of selling of the simple and basic principles that underlie them.
The second train comes and goes. Michelle and … I wanna say Craig … pack up the leaflets and posters, the latter a little flirty, the candidate with big hair and white shirt with plunging neckline, a touch of Oprah or the Latin Grammys. One leaflet’s a series of explicit claims of secured funding, with pictures of Rowland all but administering CPR at the local A and E. The other’s a personal history, yellowy Kodachrome shots of a schoolgirl waving in front of a brick veneer, old Mirror clipping of a boosterish kid attending local council, Rowland, husband and baby Olivia scaring waterfowl while picnicking somewhere in their electorate, their half-built McMansionish home in Glenwood. It’s a history of the place as much as the person, and not unmoving, a record of aspirations fulfilled. But the manna has fallen unevenly, and any notion of collective raising up, of getting to the next place, has fallen away.
Outside the station, a plaque commemorates the electrification of the line in 1975, part of the urban strategy launched by Whitlam — as commenters noted yesterday — in his 1972 speech at Blacktown Town Hall. But there hasn’t been a lot more juice coming this way since. Only Marketown, its creaking sign, complete — how amazeballs is this — with a tilde over the “T” to indicate a double-stop (“Market-town”, not Markedown; you can see their point), how much more Scanditastic can you get? — slowly rusting away.
When the tilde falls, Australian social democracy will have officially left the electorate. On one of the two trains per hour.