Reality show bathed in myths and stereotyping
Julia Gillard in western Sydney where nothing really changed except the rhetoric. Photo: Wolter Peeters
It occupied almost a week of political ''analysis'', filled acres of newsprint and hours of airtime, but the truth is the ''westfest'' at Rooty Hill changed very little.
Reporters, satellite trucks and politicians of all persuasions descended upon various corners of western Sydney and the Rooty Hill RSL in particular, a venue apparently representative of the hugely diverse 2 million-strong population of the region. They could have instead gone somewhere like the wonderful Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre but that might not have fitted the stereotype.
The reporters interviewed each other, and the politicians, about whether western Sydney would be ''crucial'' in the federal election (they concluded it would be), whether Julia Gillard's Labor Party was in big trouble in the area (being able to read opinion polls, they decided it was), whether her week-long visit and cabinet meeting constituted governing or campaigning (mostly the latter, but possibly both) and whether these suburbs as opposed to the suburbs surrounding every other major city were still Labor heartland or not (by asking bemused-looking locals in the street).
They discussed whether households would be worse off under Labor's best guess of what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's policies might be (they would) or under Abbott's assertions about what they might be (they wouldn't). Most of the actual policies remained elusive.
For the residents of the region, not much changed.
It might have appeared that they were promised a new road called WestConnex into the city to ease traffic congestion.
They might have got that impression from any one of the interviews Abbott did during the week, like when he was asked about the Prime Minister's western Sydney trip on breakfast television and said; ''Well, Kochie, I think the people of western Sydney want a plan, not a visit. They want a plan to ease cost of living pressures, a plan to ease traffic congestion and a plan to make the streets and community safer and the Coalition has real solutions to all these issues. We'll build the WestConnex, we'll end the carbon tax, we'll stop the boats, we'll stop the guns.''
They might have got the same idea when Gillard said she could spend up to $1 billion on the same project, because people in western Sydney spend ''too much time on the road getting to work - a frustrating journey often in traffic gridlock''.
The impression may have been reinforced when Abbott replied that Gillard was ''actually playing catch-up politics'' because he'd already promised $1.5 billion to it, but that by demanding a business plan and a clear idea of where the road would go before committing the money, Gillard was trying to ''buy a fight'' rather than get the road done, whereas he could already say that construction would begin within a year.
In fact WestConnex is a long way from getting done. The idea has been around in various iterations for about 15 years. The present version is estimated to cost between $10 and $15 billion. It is not yet clear exactly where the road would go or where the money to build it would come from. There is no final business plan, nor a finalised submission to Infrastructure Australia, nor any planning or environmental approval.
Even with Abbott's $1.5 billion and NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell's $1.8 billion contributions there is at least $7 billion, and very likely about $10 billion, to be raised from the private sector. But with the collapse of four road and tunnel projects in recent years the private sector has become wary of big transport projects.
As Ian Greer, the chairman of the International Project Finance Association, said, $10 billion is a ''very, very challenging amount'' to expect from Australian private financing.
Given the string of recent project failures, it would probably require a bigger contribution from governments, or a willingness by governments to assume more risk and make ongoing payments to financiers for many years on top of the upfront public funding.
And Greer and other infrastructure experts said that it would take at least several years for such a project to go through planning and environmental approvals, community consultations and finance raising.
Western Sydney residents might also have got the impression that there had been important policy changes from the Coalition in relation to asylum seekers being released on bridging visas and from the government in relation to the ability of temporary foreign workers to come to Australia to fill specific skills shortages. Each of these things apparently appeal to the notion that residents are afraid of people crowding their suburbs and taking their jobs.
But the only thing that really changed was the rhetoric, and in neither case in a constructive way.
After a Sri Lankan man on a bridging visa was charged with indecent assault, Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said it was his policy to introduce new ''behavioural protocols'' for asylum seekers over and above the usual ones that we call ''the law''. No such policy has been to shadow cabinet or the party room and no details have been offered.
Meanwhile the government's ''crackdown'' on 457 visas was mainly to introduce ways to enforce the rules for the very number of employers believed to be rorting the system. The changes would have been unexceptional if they had been presented for what they were - small changes to ensure compliance with the existing rules in an economically important and generally well managed scheme. But instead Gillard wrapped them in inflammatory ''Aussie job'' rhetoric, dismaying many in her own party and allowing the Coalition to rightly turn the ''dog whistle'' allegation back on the government.
And it may have appeared something happened to crack down on guns and crime - but the most substantial of the ideas required the backing of the states which wasn't forthcoming.
Western Sydney did get a new centre for carbon, water and food and a jobs expo, as well as a whole lot of hoopla.
Yes, campaigning is always about messaging and perceptions. But there's usually at least something real to sell. Rooty Hill was more like a virtual reality show. Voters there and everywhere else might respond much better to actual, deliverable policies.