Western Sydney’s time as a ‘stronghold’ for either major party is over, expert says

There is a growing “electoral volatility” in western Sydney, with experts saying residents have “departed from the script” in a region which could prove critical to deciding the federal election.

A new study from the Centre for Western Sydney that analysed federal election voting patterns found a level of volatility above national trends.

Five of western Sydney’s 14 federal electorates are now marginal, with the report outlining a confluence of issues that are combining to alter the electoral landscape.

The study found growing political literacy, combined with lower levels of education attainment, and higher rates of multilingualism, cultural diversity and religious faith have resulted in an unpredictable battleground.

“Western Sydney’s quiet Australians are restless and its unlikely either of the major parties will be able to claim the region as its own for some time,” the report said.

“Howard’s battlers and Labor heartland no longer, western Sydney voters are expressing a diversity in opinion at the ballot box to an extent that defies prediction and conventional political logic.”

The report identifies five seats that could decide the election: Reid, Parramatta, Greenway, Lindsay and Macquarie.

It says that while the region recorded swings against Labor three times the national average in the 2019 election, it was difficult to predict how voters had shifted since.

The report warned parties against using “narrow-cast” messages or pursuing single-issue agendas.

“Campaign pitches that ignore the region’s pronounced diversity, and seek to draw out divisions can just as easily disaffect voters seeking to connect with more balanced and informed messaging,” it said.

The report cites faith-based campaigning as an example of narrow-casting in the region, with parties relying on polling data from the marriage equality plebiscite to guide them.

The director of the Centre for Western Sydney, Prof Andy Marks said that while the region has higher than average rates of religious affiliation, it would be reckless to define the region that way.

“It’s a dangerous game to play in, particularly in western Sydney when there’s a lot of interconnectivity across the region,” he said.

“To focus on one issue suggests that people are able to separate out questions of faith from everyday living. And I suggest that that’s not the case in western Sydney. It’s not as though people can take themselves out of the fact that they have cost-of-living challenges or housing challenges, for example.”

He pointed to the seat of Banks that was long held by Labor until David Coleman won it for the Liberals in 2013, in a change he says reflected a gradual lift in income levels and education levels.

“When seats in western Sydney have drifted to Liberal over time, it’s been because of those factors like education, income, and not related to single narrowcast issues like religious space.”

Marks said the Delta lockdowns in 2021, with many of the “LGAs of concern” being in western Sydney, had elevated local issues into election concerns.

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“I think the lockdown really focused people on those localised issues, with people concerned about maintaining housing, maintaining employment and so on,” he said.

“The majority of people for example, in jobs like nursing, teaching and in healthcare, those essential jobs became so important during lockdown, and the bulk of those workers live in western Sydney and face a lot of uncertainty about rates of pay, contracts and just about cost of living more broadly.”

Marks said the days of the region being a “stronghold” for either party is over, saying it could remain a battlefield for the foreseeable future.

“I think that trend will only increase over time. And the consequence there is that neither party can take that region for granted,” he said.

“And that’ll be tested at this election.”


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