Monday, September 16, 2013

How the West was won: ALP's heartland not so progressive

The mainly blue-collar areas of Western Sydney are no longer rusted on to the Labor Party

IN 1995, a precocious first-term opposition backbencher stood in the House of Representatives and made a rash prediction.

"Howard's battlers are going to be to the 1990s what Menzies' forgotten people were to the 1940s and 1950s," the member for Warringah told the house.

"It is on their shoulders that a new generation of Liberal dominance is going to be created."

Few outside the Liberal's partisan inner core would have given much credence to Tony Abbott's impertinent analysis; the Coalition had been in power for barely seven of the previous 23 years.

Yet, with last Saturday's victory, the evidence of a new era of Coalition ascendancy is compelling. The scoreboard across seven elections since 1996 tells the story: five Coalition wins, one to Labor and one draw.

The Howard battler strategy, a conscious attempt by the Liberal Party to win over Labor's once rusted-on, blue-collar constituency, began 20 years ago after Paul Keating's "sweetest victory" election. Under then federal director Andrew Robb, the Liberals campaigned to win over middle Australia with considerable success: Labor's share of the blue-collar vote fell 12 percentage points to 37 per cent in 1996, to give the Coalition a 10-point lead.

Then, as now, western Sydney was the demographic and symbolic heart of the Labor vote.

Taking a 20-year view of the political landscape in western Sydney, Labor's ability to keep the swings against it below the national average across western Sydney gives little ground for comfort.

Across 15 seats in the west and northwest of Sydney, the Coalition gained four seats to give it seven in total. A stronger candidate than Jaymes Diaz in Greenway would have given it an eighth, while Banks has slipped out of Labor's hands for the first time since its creation in 1949.

The battle may ebb and flow and preference distribution may mask Labor's losses, but the historical trend is unmistakable.

At the 1993 election, Labor won 57 per cent of the primary vote across the 15 seats and the Liberals just 34 per cent. Even in 1996, the "Howard battler" election, Labor had a clear lead of 47 per cent to 40 per cent.

This year, for the first time, the parties are level on 43 per cent.

Like John Howard, Abbott appears suited for western Sydney. His socially conservative views that irritate his critics in politics and the media are readily accepted in the west of Sydney where attachment to family, tradition and religion is keenly felt.

Abbott's personal campaign to win acceptance in the west predates that of the Liberal Party. A product of a middle-class, north shore upbringing, and a Rhodes scholar, Abbott has consciously tried to shake off the silvertail stereotype since returning from Oxford in the early 1980s. His first experience of the west was as a trainee assistant priest at Our Lady of the Way parish in Emu Plains near Penrith in 1985-86.

After leaving the priesthood, he joined the staff of The Bulletin for a year, then took the unusual step of quitting for a year to run a concrete-batching plant in Silverwater. It was a job, Abbott writes in his book Battlelines, "that could not be dismissed as 'ivory tower' ".

Labor's decline in the west coincides with its embrace of progressive causes projecting values antithetical to those of the conservative west.

The 2011 census points to clear differences. Across the 15 seats, one in eight people say they have no religion; in the rest of the country, it is close to one in four.

Chris Bowen's seat of McMahon has the distinction of having the lowest proportion of same-sex couples in the country; one in 614, compared with one in 11 in Tania Plibersek's seat of Sydney.

In the 15 seats, couples in registered marriages outnumber couples in unregistered relationships by 10-1; in the rest of the country, couples are twice as likely to cohabit.

Work patterns are different too: western Sydney residents are likelier to work in the private sector than those elsewhere and they are likelier to work in a trade than a profession.

Counter to received political wisdom, the people of western Sydney appear not to be looking for handouts. They are less likely to collect all major categories of welfare, with the exception of the Youth Allowance. Nationally, one in 11 adults are on the Newstart Allowance; in western Sydney it is one in 23.

Abbott's Menzian self-help rhetoric - lifters, not leaners; a hand up, not a handout - is well tuned for this audience.

A third trend that, on paper at least, should run in Abbott's favour is the region's multicultural mix. By portraying ethnic minorities as disadvantaged and vulnerable, Labor convinced itself that the party of redistribution was the non-European migrant's natural home.

Yet, across the board, migrants from Asia and the Middle East are strongly socially conservative. They put family and community values ahead of individualism or universalism, and issues such as gay marriage are not easily accomodated. They put a premium on education and their work ethic is strong.

Migrants, then, qualify perfectly as Menzies' forgotten people, those he defined in his 1942 radio talk as "salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women taken for granted by each political party in turn".

Abbott's attempts to win friends in ethnic communities has proceeded largely unreported but has been conducted with the same strategic intent as his broader western Sydney project.

At the start of the election campaign, when Kevin Rudd was berating Abbott for being reluctant to take part in a leader's debate, Abbott was delivering an ecumenical message to an Islamic audience in Auburn at a gathering to mark the end of Ramadan.

"A good God smiles on all who sincerely seek the truth," Abbott said. "I believe that religious faiths, all religious faiths, seek to come to grips with the complexity of the human condition.

"They help us to come closer to being our best selves and to love and to care for others as we all know in our hearts we should. I believe in the fundamental unity of mankind."

In the absence of more detailed data of voting intentions, the Liberal Party's multicultural strategy is, at best, a work in progress.

On the ground, it is not immediately clear from Saturday's election how the region's ethnic diversity is playing out between the parties.

The Liberal Party candidate most clearly identified with an ethnic community, Andrew Nguyen in Fowler, had a disastrous election, losing 11 per cent of the primary vote, a defection that almost entirely benefited Labor's Chris Hayes.

The Liberals did relatively poorly in the two seats with the highest Muslim populations: Blaxland, where the Liberals' primary vote fell by 1.3 per cent, and Watson, where it increased only slightly.

All other things being equal, Labor will enter the next election looking vulnerable to further losses in western Sydney. A stronger Coalition candidate in Greenway would give the party a strong chance of retaking the seat, which Labor holds on a margin of a little more than 3.5 per cent.

Labor will be defending a margin of less than 6 per cent in Bowen's once rock-solid Labor seat of McMahon. The gap in the primary vote in Mark Latham's former seat of Werriwa was 17 points when Latham lost the 2004 election; this year it was reduced to 5 per cent. A swing of less than 3 per cent at the next election would give the Coalition a historical victory.

There is nothing inevitable in this presumed onward march, however. Should Labor draw the lessons of this defeat that it failed to heed in 1996, it would refocus on middle Australia and turn a deaf ear to the campaigns of the progressive Left.

An Abbott government may falter, and this may be the Coalition's natural limit in the west.

The long-term trend, however, is not encouraging for Labor.


Should the taxpayer fund "useless" research?

Only if it could be indirectly useful, it seems to me  -- JR

Last week, the Coalition called for a reprioritisation of Australian Research Council (ARC) funding away from what have been labelled 'ridiculous' otherworldly projects on Hegelian idealism and the Heideggerian understanding of self to where it is 'really needed' in medical research and the applied sciences.

Academics were quick to fire back, attesting to the value of esoteric research and accusing politicians of being unqualified to pass judgement on the value of intellectual pursuits 'they don't understand and don't care about.'

However, in the rush to rally around their profession, the academics weighing into the debate ignored the most important stakeholder in ARC-funded research: the community-at-large.

The rationale for reprioritising ARC funding is not that theoretical research is useless; it is rather that some highly specialised intellectual pursuits might not offer value for money for taxpayers.

In a democracy, taxpayers' dollars need to be wisely used in the service of society, and public benefit tests must be a key determinant of how government funds are distributed.

University research should certainly not be held hostage to the personal judgements of politicians, but it behoves government-funded academics to offer a return on investment from the public purse.

To be sure, it would be unrealistic and counterproductive to expect research paid for with taxpayers' money to always produce immediate and obvious benefits for society.

Research without a clear 'real-world' use can yield massive but unforseen dividends: Alan Turing's arcane philosophical work on logic, metaphysics and mathematics formed part of the groundwork of modern computer science.

The wider contribution of research is also sometimes diffuse: Rigorous academic output, even in seemingly out of touch disciplines, helps fuel Australia's colossal $15 billion worth of annual education exports by securing the high international standing of our universities and luring lucrative foreign students.

Taking cheap pot shots at supposedly 'ridiculous' ARC projects is ungracious and short-sighted; it does a disservice to the world-class research being done at Australian universities and the contribution it makes to our social and economic life.

Nevertheless, a more broadly epicurean outlook that stressed the importance of healing 'mortal suffering' and other earthly concerns would give due regard to Australian taxpayers - the often unacknowledged patrons of ARC research.


University of Queensland chief's kid favoured over 343 others

Some official admissions at long last

The daughter [stepdaughter] of a University of Queensland chief secured a spot in a medical course over 343 more suitable applicants, a report has revealed.  The Crime and Misconduct Commission tabled its report into a nepotism scandal at the university on Friday.

The scandal forced the resignation of UQ Vice-Chancellor Paul Greenfield and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Michael Keniger.

The report reveals Mr Greenfield's daughter secured a spot on the medical course ahead of hundreds of other better applicants.

It says university staff did not immediately report their nepotism concerns because Mr Greenfield himself had responsibility for dealing with such matters.

"It is clear from the reviews and investigation undertaken by the CMC the decision to offer a place in the 2011 undergraduate medical program to the daughter of the then Vice-Chancellor was not based on merit," the CMC report says.

The CMC found the university had played down the scandal in public statements in order to protect its reputation.

The university had also not been transparent about why professors Greenfield and Keniger resigned in late 2011.

‘‘The CMC considered the public statements made by the University of Queensland in November 2011 downplayed the seriousness of the matter and the involvement of two of its most senior executives,’’ the CMC said.

The watchdog said it had been unhappy about the university’s decision not to be specific about the reasons for the men’s resignations.

The watchdog also revealed it had asked for their resignation dates to be brought forward.

Acting CMC Assistant Commissioner Misconduct Kathleen Florian said the public must be able to have faith that decisions on university places are based on merit and equity.

‘‘It may be considered that the right balance was not struck between the public interest on the one hand, and protecting the reputation of the university and the reputations of the two most senior officers on the other,’’ she said in a statement.

"The offer was more than an irregularity in the enrolment process as previously described by the University and helped the student in question receive an offer before 343 other students who were better placed to receive an offer."

The University of Queensland admitted in a statement that it should have been more open.

It said the university senate’s decision not to reveal the reasons for the resignations was ‘‘difficult’’.

But it said the senate had to weigh up competing interests with ’’... the avoidance of operational disruption and reputational damage on the one hand, and the promotion of transparency on the other hand.

‘‘The university accepts, however, that its response was not well handled and acknowledges that it lacked the transparency called for in the circumstances,’’ it said.

UQ said it had noted the CMC’s conclusions on board and had been working on more transparent systems to manage issues of integrity and misconduct.


NSW child protection supervisors failed test

Many caseworkers are employed as senior supervisors at the state's child protection hotline despite having failed the application process for the role.

Internal documents obtained by Fairfax Media show that seven of the 14 caseworkers who failed to achieve a pass when they applied for the role of team leader were already acting in the more senior position. It is understood that most of the caseworkers who failed the application assessment are still acting in the more senior roles.

The document, signed by Michelle Allan, the acting manager of the Child Protection Helpline, on May 9, shows that caseworkers deemed "not successful" scored marks of 11 to 15.5 out of 30. To pass they are required to get 16 out of 30.

The senior role involves leading teams of up to five caseworkers who answer calls to the hotline, which fields reports about children at risk of abuse and neglect. The team leader supervises the caseworkers and escalates the priority given to more serious complaints if child safety is at serious risk.

A former community services worker who has seen the documents said some of the people who failed the application process have continued to act in the supervisory roles. "Normally if you don't pass the application process, you would get culled. In this case they were given another two tasks to try to get them over the line, but a lot of them did even worse in those," she said.

Opposition spokeswoman for family and community services Linda Burney said the department of community services was "willing to do everything possible to fill those positions". "Instead of culling them if they fail, they were desperately trying to fill those senior caseworker positions with people who were clearly unsuitable," she said. "That suggests a dangerous practice."

A caseworker who works for the hotline said team leaders are supposed to provide caseworkers with support and guidance.

"People who clearly failed a recruitment process are being promoted," she said. "Aside from it being unethical and setting them up for failure, it's outright dangerous and places the very people we are suppose to protect at risk. Why does management think this is OK? Does a child need to die for this practice to stop? My fear is that one day a team leader will incorrectly sign off one of [the] reports, and there will be a tragic consequence from some little child."

The concerns about the recruitment process at the child protection hotline follow those about a shortage of caseworkers in NSW. The caseworker said she and her colleagues had been asked to do more overtime in the lead-up to a visit by a newspaper to the child protection hotline office.


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