'Trying to reclaim' ALP's Rooty Hill roots

By: Lloyd Jones
04 March, 2013

Walk from Rooty Hill train station to the suburb's renowned RSL club and you'll pass utes parked on the front lawns of brick and tile houses, vege patches in back gardens and an Australian flag on a front porch.

The main shopping street feels like a country town but it has halal butchers, an Indian supermarket and an immigration agent.

Rooty Hill is just one corner of Sydney's vast, varied and changing west with its pockets of affluence, housing commission blocks, ethnic enclaves, sprawling suburbs and busy commercial and industrial districts which make up Australia's largest manufacturing zone.

With more than two million people - approaching 10 per cent of the nation - the west is one of the country's key economic powerhouses, including the major business centre of Parramatta.

But as the area has grown and changed and absorbed overseas migrants, the stereotypical "westie" has been disappearing.

That trend has been boosted by changes in the labour market and a new wave of aspirational and upscaling settlers, notably in the outer west, who are transforming the political landscape.

It appears the Labor Party hasn't been paying attention to the shift and now 10 of its seats look under threat in the west, including those of ministers.

The latest dire opinion polls for the party show that the region and its seats are not all "rusted on" to Labor, with constituents sending a message they're tired of being taken for granted.

As Prime Minister Julia Gillard prepares to spend five nights in Rooty Hill in a bid to shore up plunging Labor support, the latest poll reveals the area's presumed safe Labor seats of Werriwa, Chifley, Blaxland and McMahon would go to the Liberals if an election were held now.

Gillard is staying at the Novotel next to the Rooty Hill RSL club and will spend the week in threatened seats, not only reaching out to voters but trying to reassure local MPs worried they'll soon be out of a job.

But even before she hits the streets, many locals already view her trip as a stunt.

At the Imperial Hotel, bar attendant Tania Moorcroft says patrons at the bar have little good to say about Gillard and her visit and wonder why she's bothering.

"I just think everyone thinks they've been wrong done by," she said. "They don't really care whether she's here or not."

Moorcroft says the workers, housing commission tenants and pensioners in the area are all trying to make ends meet as prices go up, while Gillard will be staying in the best room in the Novotel eating the best food.

"Now all of a sudden with the election coming up, she decides to pay us a visit."

At the Imperial bar, Moorcroft says people call the prime minister "Gillard" - not "Julia" or "Gillard". The PM might cop a bit of verbal abuse on her visit, she notes.

Up at the RSL, as elderly punters peg away at the gaming machines or fill out bingo cards, Gail Smith welcomes guests at the door and refers to recent disparaging comments about the name Rooty Hill by federal Mental Health Minister Mark Butler.

In comments that embarrassed the government on the eve of Gillard's visit, he told Adelaide radio he preferred not to stay at the Rooty Hill RSL because it sounded too like something from The Benny Hill Show or a Carry On film.

Mrs Smith says he should come to Rooty Hill and find out what it's like.

"We are no different to anybody who lives on the north shore, we all work," she said.

"We think we do alright out here."

Mrs Smith says she's very proud of the club that started out as a "tin shack" in 1964 with 127 members and now has over 50,000.

Rooty Hill is still referred to as the "Vegas of the west" because of the club, which has more than 700 gaming machines and a constant stream of of singers, bands and comedians.

For the record, Rooty Hill is said to be named after a hill on Norfolk Island where Governor Philip Gidley King had a residence built in 1788, the site proving difficult to dig because of the many tree roots.

When he returned to NSW, a hill near a new government reserve at Blacktown reminded him of the Norfolk Island hill and he named it accordingly.

Gillard's visit can be seen as a bid to reconnect with Labor's working class roots - but the changing face of the workforce means allegiances can no longer be taken for granted.

With manufacturing declining in Sydney's west and elsewhere, workers are turning to trades and setting up their own businesses, often giving them a different view on politics.

In 2011, small businesses comprised nearly 97 per cent of the nearly 117,000 businesses in western Sydney, around 6350 more than in 2009.

The dire position of NSW Labor and the ICAC investigation into alleged corruption by former ministers in the previous government is not helping federal Labor as the September election looms.

University of Western Sydney political historian David Burchell says the outer west, seats like Lindsay and Greenway, are particularly prone to swinging.

Those areas have fewer migrants, and many residents have moved there recently, leaving behind the inner city for bigger houses on big blocks.

"In parts of the middle west there are seats that have voted Labor for as long as they've existed," he said.

"That's not true of the outer west.

"There's no doubt that outer western Sydney is more blue collar than white collar and has below average academic qualifications.

"But they're not primarily industrial workers any more, the most obvious are in small business, independent contractors, tradespeople.

"... these are people often looking to do better than their parents did but also quite often economically vulnerable to shifts in economic fortunes."

Dr Burchell says many of those voters have swung back and forth, seeing the Liberals as the party of opportunity but Labor as a party of protection from laws that they dislike, such as the former coalition's WorkChoices.

Many in the outer west are mortgaged to the hilt and dismayed the housing market has taken a dive in recent years, meaning property values are slipping.

"They've upscaled but don't have much in reserve if things go wrong," Dr Burchell said.

Just 10 years ago, he says, people in other parts of Sydney didn't know or care about the west.

"They thought it was funny and vaguely dangerous, mostly funny," he said. "People who wore flannelette shirts and Ugg boots."

But the stereotypes are long out of date.

"The idea is bogan boys driving old Commodores, but for long past they've been driving little Japanese performance cars and they outrun the police these days."

Dr Burchell says "the westie" image still annoys people who live there and young people still say it's often harder to get a job in the Sydney CBD if their family address is in the west.

Crime, particularly gun crime, is often highlighted as a western Sydney problem, but Michael Kennedy, the head of the University of Western Sydney's policing program, says the reality is just a bit of "moral panic" promoted by some media.

"People don't think that it's not safe, they would just like better services," he said.

The former policeman predicts Gillard will tell voters "the Commonwealth is going to ride into Sydney's west on a white charger and police are going to arrest away any problems, and if the state police can't do it the federal police will".

"She's basically telling people she's going to rescue them from themselves and they don't like it."

Dr Burchell, meanwhile, says a longstanding perception among people in the west is that politicians are never there, don't care about their concerns and seem to always live elsewhere.

In western Sydney in particular, it's important for politicians to be there in person, he says.

Source: AAP