I’m skirting the lower border of the electorate along Elizabeth Drive when I roll down the window and the smell of fertiliser hits me. Passing signs that say ‘You Orta Save Water’ and ‘Chicken Manure – $2.50’, it’s not hard to surmise that this is not your conventional Sydney seat.
Lindsay would be a rural seat if Sydney grew like a normal city, instead of growing with tentacle-like strands of suburbia along the Great Western, Hume, Pacific and Princes Highways. Lindsay is neatly bisected by the Great Western Highway, with its borders reaching as far south as Wallacia and as far north as Agnes Banks (both of these suburbs, along with many others, were excised in a redistribution after the last election).
The heart of the seat is Penrith, and both major candidates’ have their local offices there, no more than 300 metres apart on the city’s High Street.
If the main street of a suburb is any reflection on its inhabitants, then High Street paints an interesting picture. A man’s haircut goes for $14, but with extra charged for longer hair. ‘For Lease’ signs are common, and even what appears to be the street’s most popular store, Meredith Music, advertises a ‘closing down sale’. The massage parlours are discreetly identified by their street numbers – ‘373’, ‘423’ – with the exception of the delightfully named ‘Oh Zone’. The St Nicholas of Myra Catholic Church tells me that ‘God answers knee-mail’, whilst Odin’s Oath Biker Accessories does a strong trade in bandanas, balaclavas and belt buckles.
Lindsay is also home to the University of Western Sydney, though the university also has satellite campuses at Parramatta and Bankstown. The Liberal member for Lindsay, Jackie Kelly, famously angered many local residents in 2004 when she rejected the notion of more funding for UWS on the basis that “no one in my electorate goes to uni”, adding that the seat was “pram city.”
“There’s this ‘westy’ culture where people think we’re all a bunch of bogans who just drink, get stoned, and do burnouts”, says University of Western Sydney student Whitney Eagle when I meet her at the university’s expansive Werrington campus.
Eagle moved to the area from Manly to attend UWS, ignoring the looks of consternation she received from her Stella Maris College classmates. Eagle shares the embarrassment felt by many locals at Kelly’s characterisation of the area as the domain solely of poorly-educated yobbos, which was exhibited most prominently in 2004 when she presented the Prime Minister with an “I Love Penriff” t-shirt.
Eagle points out the more sophisticated aspects of the area such as the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre – which regularly stages classical music concerts and stage plays – and the recently expanded Penrith Regional Gallery. Lindsay was, after all, named after famed artist Norman Lindsay.
Nevertheless, High Street lends pretty strong support to Kelly’s hypothesis, with the ‘westy’ stereotypes out in force. There are mullets everywhere. The women wear either too much make-up or not enough, and many of them are indeed pushing prams.
Like most of suburbia, however, the majority of commerce has moved indoors to the local Westfield, in this case Penrith Plaza. With the usual suspects on show – Cotton On, JayJays, Starbucks, Portmans, Supre, Myer, Boost Juice, JB Hi-Fi – you could be anywhere in Australia.
Penrith itself is almost a perfect reflection of the leisure outsourcing which has swept through suburban Australia, where business districts don’t just happen anymore, they’re given a designated 50 acres with a 1500 spot carpark. So too the nightlife has shifted away somewhat from the pubs which dot the main drag and towards Panthers, the mini-casino which sits opposite the local NRL team’s home ground.
The Australian Arms, Penrith and Embassy Hotels are practically empty after 6pm when I stop in for a beer. Whilst admittedly I have made my visits on a Tuesday night, Panthers, I find, is packed with post-work traffic. American travel writer Bill Bryson was quite impressed with “the vast tinkling interior” of Panthers in his book on Australia, Down Under, describing how “hundreds of pokies stood in long straight lines, and at nearly every one sat an intent figure feeding in the mortgage money”, but I am left somewhat cold by the faux glamour.
I shouldn’t worry too much about High Street, according to David Bradbury – Labor’s candidate for Lindsay – who points to NSW Government plans to turn Penrith into something of a regional city rather than a suburban outpost.
“There will be a fairly significant re-development of the town centre over the coming years”, Bradbury said. “So one of the focuses of that exercise will be to try and ensure that there’s as much vitality – not just during the day but also in terms of nightlife – in the city centre as possible.”
Bradbury is contesting Lindsay for a third time, having been defeated by Kelly at the 2001 and 2004 elections, though the signs are better for him this time. The Liberal Party currently holds the seat with a 2.9% margin over Labor, with Kelly’s 5.3% lead after the 2004 election cut down with the recent redistribution.
The redistribution should help Labor further at the coming election with the incorporation of suburbs like St Marys and Colyton on its eastern side, and the exclusion of the more rural suburbs to its north such as Londonderry. As you would expect, Labor has tended to poll better nearer the Labor-held seats (Chifley, Prospect) on its eastern side than it does in the booths nearer the Liberal-held seats to its north and west like Macquarie and Greenway.
More importantly, however, Lindsay is one of Howard’s ‘battler’ seats. It is very much a part of the aspirational mortgage belt vote that Labor is seeking to capture. As Crikey points out, “on demographics and on state results Lindsay looks as if it should be a Labor seat … Labor won’t win government if it can’t win seats like Lindsay”.
Kelly was originally elected on the back of ‘Howard’s massacre’ in 1996, with the seat recording an 11.8% swing against the ALP, the second largest in the state. However, the Liberals will be without Kelly’s star power this time, with the former Parliamentary Secretary quitting the “harsh, unforgiving, relentless” world of politics to spend more time with her family.
This time Bradbury will face off against Karen Chijoff, a local resident who curiously did not respond to my frequent requests for an interview. Her website, however, emphasises interest rates as a key issue for her.
“Like many other local families, my husband and I work hard to raise our family and pay the mortgage”, the message on her homepage reads. “That is why it is important to us that the economy is well managed. We certainly could not afford the high interest rates we had when Labor were last in power.”
Interestingly, Bradbury also identifies interest rates as one of the key issues for Lindsay.
“The local issues are very much the national issues, but with their local dimension”, he says.
“We’ve had nine significant interest rate increases. They call it a mortgage belt seat and that’s a fairly accurate description. So the increases in interest rates, along with the other increases in the cost of living, mean that many local families are really finding it tough at the moment.”