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.
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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.
Hypocritical writer who railed at election campaign hi-vis wear dons hi-vis wear pic.twitter.com/QtjORU4tUe
— Bernard Keane (@BernardKeane) May 23, 2016
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.