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It certainly feels as though we’ll be hearing a lot about Western Sydney this week. The battle, as it were, has begun in earnest, and the PM is shacking up in Rooty Hill to spend nearly a week pandering to this mythic slice of suburbia. With the occasional stop-off at a $12,000-a-table fundraising dinner, of course.
Therefore, we will be subjected to a great deal of discussion from journalists who quickly decamp to Penrith for a couple of days, chat with the newsagent, then deign to inform the rest of us who these people really are and what it all MEANS.
This is likely to be de rigueur for the coming seven months. Accurate or not (and that depends on which psephologist you ask), it is clear that Labor has decided that the election will be won and lost in that sprawling slab of Australia that stretches from Parramatta to the Blue Mountains.
There is one lingering concern around what is likely to be an obsessive focus on that area leading up to September 14. This behaviour, with the PM closely being followed by the Opposition leader and undoubtedly many other prominent MPs (Malcolm Turnbull found his way from Rose Bay to Blaxland on Saturday) threatens to create a new narrative that politicians will try to hang their hats on.
The phrase has yet to be uttered, but surely it’s not far away. Politics stateside is utterly awash with this notion, one harnessed by the conservative movement, that rural and suburban America is ‘real’ America, where people have ‘real’ problems.
This belief has already taken hold in Australia to some degree, best exemplified in the long-standing mockery of ‘inner city’ types as disconnected, ivory tower-dwellers who wouldn’t have the first clue what it’s like to struggle every day. Instead they spend all their time writing silly blogs.
I live with my wife in the suburb of Thornbury, a delightful, multicultural pocket of Melburnalia that sits about 8kms north of the CBD, on the edge of the gentrification ring. We both work for charitable organisations. We own The Wire on DVD and watched the whole thing in about two weekends. I actively pretend to know what Ulysses is about. I have a wooden iPhone cover. I am a walking bundle of clichés. Stipulated.
But for heaven’s sake, stop turning your jaundiced eye our way. We are real Australians. Thornbury is real Australia. Alice Springs is real Australia. Subiaco is real Australia. So is Canberra.
I grow weary of a different brand of elites – I’m looking at the Hildebrands, Devines and Penberthys of the world here – who live lifestyles not fundamentally dissimilar from mine – wealthy, comfortable, educated, informed, probably inner-urban – yet pretend to have a hotline to this ‘real’ Australia. An Australia of backyard pools and barbeques and mateship. Of conversations over the back fence.
Like I don’t talk to my neighbours.
The idea that from their slightly differently designed ivory tower they can somehow divine the attitudes of some enormous, amorphous swathe of Australia is frankly ridiculous. Yet it persists.
I don’t want an Australia where I or anyone feels the need to apologise for who they are. But this is exactly what the ‘real Australia’ narrative creates. It de-legitimises beliefs and lines of thinking that are not in keeping with whatever it is the needs of ‘real’ Australia are defined as. And those definitions are almost always financial.
Jason Clare was quoted in The Age setting these boundaries just this weekend. When asked whether he’d suffer electorally due to environmental reforms like the carbon price, he said ”for different parts of the country they will be more interested in that. Here it’s bread-and-butter issues. It’s health, it’s education, it’s crime, it’s how much money is in my pocket. They’re the things that people worry about every day.”
“Different parts” equals “Green voters” in essence, and “Here” is “real Australia”.
Aside from the fact that health and education are, at least in part, issues about ‘how much money is in my pocket’, this is precisely designed to de-legitimise the argument that environmental protection is an important goal. This applies precisely the same to refugee policy. Those concerns are not ‘real’ because ‘real’ Australians don’t care about them, other than how much it costs, in money or jerbs.
It’s absolutely fine that western Sydney receives the attention it gets this election. If those seats truly are the ones where the election hangs in the balance, well, that’s parliamentary democracy for you. Sometimes you live where your vote really matters, and when that happens, milk it for all it’s worth.
If pandering to the particular desires and prejudices of a given region is what will win it, then that’s the bed we’ve made and we should sleep in it.
But, please, let’s steer clear of vague, platitudinous notions of ‘real’ Australia. It belittles us all.
Ed Butler is a recovering economist and novelty blogger, of the never-lamented Things Bogans Like. On about step seven of the requisite 12, he now works in communications and environmental advocacy. He blogs on the odd occasion at Shouting at the Void, and tweets from @fakeedbutler.