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May 24, 2016

Bernard Keane and Scott Morrison, in high-vis, stare into the abyss

There's never been a more exciting time to dig large holes, as Bernard Keane joins Scott Morrison on a large building site in western Sydney.



At the corner of Lavender Street and Queens Avenue in Five Dock in Sydney there’s a former shop that’s now a house. Older suburbs in Sydney are littered with these: relics from an era before shopping malls or even shopping centres, when there was, literally, a corner store for groceries. Such things could hardly compete with the new-fangled supermarkets that invaded the suburbs in the ’50s, with their hunt-and-peck checkout girls (“I WILL call out all prices”), piles of empty boxes at the front and the almost exclusively female clientele. Few of these corner shops lasted beyond the ’60s, or if they did they shifted into other forms of retail, like books or milk bars, but usually they became houses, because they were normally attached to a house anyway, above or behind it. The shopfront windows would be bricked in, the entries would be turned into front doors, or made into tiny verandas.

The one in Five Dock caught my eye because, unusually, it still looks much like a shop, but with a door with graffiti on it and curtains in the windows, as if you could draw them aside to see a suburban life on sale within, just like a bought one. It’s still to be devoured by the present’s insatiable consumption of the past in Sydney, a lingering reminder of a very different world 50 years ago where, bizarrely, you couldn’t get whatever you wanted whenever you wanted, when the city closed up at 5pm. Much, of course, like Mike Baird wants it to now.

I notice the shop-house on my way to nearby Concord Oval, or more accurately the building site on what used to be a hockey pitch next door. Treasurer Scott Morrison and the local Liberal MP, the splendid and annoyingly boyish-looking Craig Laundy (responsible for removing Labor’s John Murphy from politics, for which a grateful nation thanks him), are having an election campaign event with the WestConnex project.

So far, the project is a large hole, and as far as I’m concerned, they’ve missed by about 200 metres, because the hole should have been in Concord Oval itself so that all memory of that place could be eradicated. Concord Oval was, for reasons that are beyond the grasp of any rational person, developed by the Australian Rugby Union as the home of the Australian leg of the first rugby World Cup in 1987 — instead of using the Sydney Cricket Ground, say. Thirty years on, it looks like that shop down the road, a relic, half converted to something else, a suburban footy ground on Parramatta Road with two full-scale stands on either side and, famously “the tallest goal posts in the world” (god knows why), but nothing else. The scoreboard gives away its use now — not “Australia v France” but “West Harbour v Warringah”. That, of course, is the other reason to turn the thing into a vast hole — Australia losing to France in the 1987 World Cup  semi-final, a painful memory even for those of us who no longer follow the 15-a-side frolic.

I park in the dirt lot behind the Oval (“Rugby parking — $5” reads a hand-drawn sign, for the one-time World Cup venue) and get out of the car. It’s hot. Like, actually hot. Not because the hole being dug is somehow channelling the fires of hell, but because Sydney is, absurdly, hot near the end of May, like we’re recklessly cooking the whole damn planet or something. Milling about with cameramen (there’s one cameralady) and photographers, I have to retreat to the shade, before we don the campaign couture of high-vis vest, helmet and protective eyewear. Morrison arrives from his regular interview with that (very) stout tribune of the Sydney battler, Ray Hadley, whose grasp of life on Struggle Street that morning enabled him to lecture Morrison for daring to touch the superannuation tax rorts of the rich. Morrison and Laundy are here to inspect the hole, which is to enable Westconnex to burrow under the inner west. It’s an impressive hole, no doubt, and one that will go in two directions, because Westconnex is the midpoint of the etc etc etc… I lose concentration during Morrison’s remarks; I’m an eastern suburbs chap, and my grasp of geography west of Anzac Parade is a little hazy.

What I am impressed by is the vast shed being constructed at the end of the hole. It’s a giant concrete walled box, with the roof still to be put on, and mounds of dirt visible above the walls. This, I learn from one of the WestConnex guys, is the “acoustic shed”, a 2500-square-metre space where dirt from the tunnels will be piled up and loaded into trucks, which will then roll out onto Parramatta Road. The shed is to keep the noise confined, because the operation will run 24 hours.

Morrison and Laundy examine the abyss below and the machines therein, dutifully asking questions of WestConnex staff for five minutes; Laundy cleverly gets in with the “how deep will it be” question early on, doubtless depriving the Treasurer of one of his conversational gambits in this Seinfeldian discussion, before it’s back to the site office for the real business — lauding the project and railing at Labor. Morrison is revelling in the fact that Labor backed WestConnex when it was in government but Anthony Albanese is now a fierce critic of the most recent iteration of the plan, for its effect on suburban traffic — not merely will WestConnex devour the innards of Sydney, it will rise up in inner city suburbs like Newtown, the present devouring the past again.

This gives Morrison not merely the rare opportunity to boast of funding something Labor won’t — usually, as Albanese loves to point out, the Coalition is reannouncing projects funded by Labor — but to connect Labor, somewhat tenuously, to the Greens (the Greens generally oppose any road projects, particularly ones that might disturb inner-city latte-sippers and fixie-riding hipsters). Morrison uses a verb that must surely have been the subject of hours of focus-group work by the Liberals — “crab walking”, although if more than 10% of voters know what crab walking is, I’ll eat an entire meal of seafood extender.

Then it’s on to David Feeney. Morrison has a new angle to run on Feeney the Forgetful. He demonstrates, Morrison says, how Labor’s policy will allow wealthy people like Feeney “and others” (the “others” being wealthy Liberal voters, but hush) to keep on negative gearing while those mythical folk on less than $80,000 a year who negatively gear — a parade of worthy public sector professions like policemen, nurses and soldiers — will have one of their few opportunities to get ahead snatched from them. In the abstract, it’s a nice line, despite being hopelessly wrong, for the way it portrays the very non-retrospectivity of Labor’s policy — a point of pride for the opposition — as a mechanism of class war. I like it, but it’s grossly complicated for an election campaign where virtually no one is paying attention except the tiny number of journalists clustered about Morrison.

One of the latter asks about Sussan Ley, who has in effect breached cabinet solidarity by saying she wants to junk the Medicare freeze but Treasury and Finance won’t let her; it’s a government decision, Morrison says, and for him such hard decisions are a point of pride, unlike Shorten, who every time he opens his mouth is spending your money, spendometer, etc etc etc. Indeed, Labor has a “black chasm” in its fiscal plans, he insists, an example either of Black Hole Inflation (a phenomenon in which the claimed size of budget black holes must grow significantly every election for anyone to take notice) or the Treasurer has been inspired by the pit he’s just looked into. For a government that pushed spending beyond the level Kevin Rudd used to tackle the financial crisis, it’s pretty funny stuff, but truth is the first casualty of cliches, or something. Mildly bored, I snap a selfie in my high-vis gear and tweet it, notionally a “become all that I hate” moment, except I already reached that point some decades ago.

The WestConnex staff — blank faced and doubtless bemused behind sunglasses (or are they safety eyewear?) — are left to the task of boring under the inner west, while the politicians and media head off to bore everyone else. On the return to the more familiar geography of Maroubra — Crikey’s temporary Sydney abode — I take the Cross City Tunnel, an opulently expensive road project that, despite the often absurd congestion above it, is almost empty for much of the day: the main reason why its original owners went bust. Hopefully a better fate awaits WestConnex. But it magnifies the feeling that the entire campaign is inside an acoustic shed, carefully shielded from the real world and an indifferent populace, while the busy work of consuming the past continues apace.


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15 thoughts on “Bernard Keane and Scott Morrison, in high-vis, stare into the abyss

  1. paddy

    OMG! It’s Bernard Rundle.
    We’ve all disappeared into that black hole.
    (Excellent hi-vis BTW)

    1. Wexford

      I came here (late to the party, having been away) to make this very comment. It seems several have made the same observation!

  2. john ferris

    Hey Bernard, although I enjoyed the tone and general boredom of these terrible pollies, I would have thought that it would worth understanding something of the westconnex plans might be important for a political journo in Sydney. A bit of a black chasm wouldn’t you say?

  3. form1planet

    I prefer Bernard’s earlier gonzo outing, where he went to an ALP event in Brisbane, ate too many party pies and developed a headache.

  4. John Donovan

    “carefully shielded from the real world and an indifferent populace”, except in this instance relative to WestConnex, the population is not indifferent. A significant portion of the population impacted by this project do not want it to go ahead, and have voiced their opposition loudly. Except most of the impacted population live in seats dominated by either Labor or the Greens, so how much impact on state and federal do you think this will have???

  5. klewso

    Scrott throwing stones at a construction site?
    Wish you could’ve asked him about that other funny time when Feeney and Stuart Robert had to pay back TA after slugging us plebs the cost of staying at Crown Casino after attending the Steve Irons (Member for Swan?) wedding back in October 2011 … oh wait a minute?
    Or how much Irons paid back for staying 130 odd nights in Melbourne (where his intended resided?) over two years?

  6. Katelan

    “the Greens generally oppose any road projects, particularly ones that might disturb inner-city latte-sippers and fixie-riding hipsters” – really? Give it a rest Bernard, the Greens-kicking is getting pretty dull. There’s plenty of Greens in the outer suburbs and the country nowadays, and they don’t oppose all road projects, just the stupid ones. In fact, country Greens support good roads as being fundamental to local economies.

  7. Lord Muck

    I hope Scott’s tie is the detachable type or it might become a noose on a work site. Bernard, just to make sure it is safety compliant give it a tug the next time you get a chance. Then again …

  8. christine gibson

    For one moment there I thought I was reading a chapter from a cheap paperback novel “Scotty and the shop around the corner.”
    So many days so many stories to,write. Ho hum.

  9. Dog's Breakfast

    Rundle-esque BK, and generally I’d say that was a good thing. Very close to my heart, being a latter eastern suburbs gentleman, formerly a Hurstville inner-westie, and very familiar with Concord Oval, the Rugby nightmare, Greenie-sceptic and not quite sure of anything west of Anzac Pde (and surf at Maroubra to boot, I’ll look out for you)

    But I’d like to know what happens when pollies just pour on the bullshit, as Morrison did here, both about spendathons and their own record, Labor’s initial support for WestConnex but not the latterly plan regered through by Mike Baird and Duncan Gay etc. Does the thronging media pack lay in, quite reasonably asking when the bullshit is going to stop, or at least warning him that the hole may be no more if the bullshit overflow gets to it? Why aren’t these dickheads challenged by the Press when they come up with this malarkey.

    On the other hand, I can understand the ennui, the self-loathing, and that undeniable voice in my head saying ‘how did I get here’ drowning out any attempt at an intelligent question.

    Carry on.

    1. AR

      As one long wearied BBC interrogator put it, “why am I allowing this lying bastard to lie to me?”

  10. Roger March

    I thought I was reading Guy Rundle. Nice prose.

    1. colin skene

      Me too!!!!

  11. Bobalot

    Does Crikey really need more pointless Guy Rundle like articles?

  12. Walkens FIlm

    “the Greens generally oppose any road projects, particularly ones that might disturb inner-city latte-sippers and fixie-riding hipsters”
    = lazy journalism.
    This ridiculous latte-sipper fixie riding cliche is soooo 2012. Please give it a rest, it doesn’t add anything to your writing at all.


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