Clash of civilisations

Taken together, postings from the past week have perhaps gone too far in painting a picture of a Labor Party that faces a bloodbath whenever the election happens to be called (Crikey at least seems very sure it will be in the next few days). The Latham-is-back theme of the past week’s news reporting and blogosphere comment has been largely absent here, so in the interests of balance it’s probably time to focus on some of the brighter spots on Labor’s electoral picture.

On second thoughts, I’ll do that tomorrow. Instead, the subject of today’s lesson is the prospect of Labor losing a seat it already holds, and one not in Western Australia this time. Located in north-western Sydney, from Blacktown out to Marsden Park, Greenway is held by Labor with a margin of 3.2 per cent after swings to the Liberals of 10.1 per cent in 1996 and 6.4 per cent in 2001 (with a 6.5 per cent swing back to Labor in between). The seat has a lot in common with the nearby Labor strongholds of Chifley and Prospect, but other neigbours include outer Sydney seats that have decisively shifted to the Liberals in the life of the current government, namely Macquarie and Penrith-based Lindsay, plus the safe Liberal seat of Mitchell. Mitchell in particular is regarded as the epicentre of the Sydney "bible belt", and this is where the Liberals’ high hopes for Greenway come into play. Their candidate Louise Markus is a community worker for possibly Australia’s largest church, Hillsong, boasting a congregation of 17,000 concentrated in and around the electorate. As demonstrated by this earlier post, the idea that churches can provide a ready-made base of organisational and electoral support for their favoured candidates is very much in vogue at the moment. What’s more, Labor is losing the personal vote of a retiring local member, which is always a favourite for those hunting out electorates that might go against the grain.

Certainly the media is interested, and Labor a little worried. On Tuesday, Mark Davis and Marcus Priest of the Australian Financial Review reported that the paper had "obtained" a list of 29 marginal seats that will be the focus of Labor’s attention, eight with "defensive" and the remainder with "offensive" campaigns. Greenway was "being treated as warranting an offensive campaign" due to a retiring incumbent and an opposing candidate who was "a worker for the fast-growing and well-resourced Hillsong Church". This week The Bulletin entered the fray with a two-page article by Paul Daley that talks up Markus’s chances. He talks up a few other things as well, specifically Labor candidate Ed Husic’s background as a Muslim from the former Yugoslavia and how this might play in a seat located in "deep, middle-Australia, a place where the fears about border security, terrorism and illegal (mostly Muslim) migrant hordes, packaged by the government with such effect at the last election, resonated long and loud. And still do". An interview Husic conducted with the Blacktown City Sun is described as an "extraordinary" response to what the paper called "a whisper campaign about his religious affiliations from sections of the community in Greenway".

After the build-up, the reality check. Greenway is a good deal less white-bread than Daley makes out. Check table 14b in this Australian Parliamentary Library research paper and you will see that Greenway ranks twenty-first out of 150 in its arse-about-tit ranking of electorates by proportion of "persons of Islam religion" (sometimes known as "Muslims"). Also, the "personal vote of a retiring local member" that Labor is losing is that of the notoriously under-achieving Frank Mossfield. Indeed The Bulletin took the opposite tack in citing his retirement as a plus for the Liberals, reporting that "the people from the ageing fibros of Seven Hills and the so-called ‘McMansions’ of Stanhope Gardens and Glenwood are said to feel as if they have been taken for granted by successive federal and state Labor MPs".

Antony Green has noted the chatter surrounding Greenway and goes to an unusual amount of trouble to give the idea short shrift in his federal election guide entry:

There are a lot of odd things being written about this electorate. In the two decades it has existed, Greenway has always followed the state trend, becoming a marginal seat when the Labor Party has disastrous results, like 1996 and 2001. For all that time the seat has been represented by low profile MPs, which means Labor has never really benefited from the sitting member factor. Now Labor has Ed Husic, a younger more active candidate who grew up in the area, yet suddenly there is a lot of media talk that Labor could lose the seat. Some are pointing to there supposedly being 11,000 new voters since the last election. True, but most electorates would have that many new voters. The enrolment is only up 4,000, meaning most of those new voters are ‘churn’ in already settled parts of the electorate, with most of the increased enrolment in the new suburbs at the northern end of the electorate. There is a lot of pointing to Liberal candidate Louise Markus and her church connections, and certainly the fact the party has a presentable candidate (unlike some past campaigns) and an influx of eager young campaign workers will help. But it still seems unlikely that Labor could lose this seat when you consider it would have to do worse than its dreadful 2001 result.

The only thing the Poll Bludger can add to this is that the seat could well fall if events between now and polling day that cannot yet be foreseen transpire to deliver a substantial shift in public opinion towards the Coalition. But so might many others.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.