Why Labor bled votes in its Western Sydney ‘heartland’


Queensland wasn’t the only region where Labor lost substantial ground with voters – in its heartland of western Sydney, the party recorded major swings against it.

Labor bled votes in its heartland of western Sydney because aspirational voters feared its economic policies, while social conservatism was another factor cited by experts and insiders for the party’s loss of supporters. 

Voters in at least 12 western Sydney seats turned against the party at the federal election.

The 2019 Federal Election fallout: How Labor is dealing with its loss
The 2019 Federal Election fallout: How Labor is dealing with its loss

The seats of Banks, Blaxland, Chifley, Fowler, Greenway, Lindsay, Macquarie, McMahon, Mitchell, Parramatta,  Werriwa, and Watson all recorded swings against Labor.

Swings against Labor in Western Sydney (as at 24/05/19)
Swings against Labor in Western Sydney (as at 24/05/19)
SBS News

Counting is still underway and the figures are as at Friday, May 24.

Western Sydney University political scientist Andy Marks, who had predicted a Labor win, said the results were startling and 'unheard of'.

"We haven’t seen anything like this in recent electoral history," he told SBS News.

"On average we've calculated a 3.3 per cent swing against Labor across all western Sydney seats, which is pretty unheard of especially given where the (pre-polling) momentum was heading."

Some of the worst swings occurred in the most rusted-on Labor seats, such as Chifley, which has been retained by Labor MP Ed Husic.

The electorate hit back with a 6.72 per cent swing against Labor.

"Typically that just doesn’t occur in a seat on that kind of favourable margin and something in the campaign narrative has triggered that," Dr Marks said.

"That's a remarkable push back in what's been a very, very safe Labor seat."

Labor lost substantial ground in western Sydney at the federal election, with
Labor Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen MP outside his childhood home in Smithfield, western Sydney.

In the 2016 election, Mr Husic saw a eight per cent swing in his favour, while the Liberal candidate was hit by a nine per cent swing against him.

Minor parties' success 

Labor MP Chris Bowen’s seat of McMahon also recorded one the region's worst swings against the party of -5.55 per cent.

That compares to the surprising success of the far-right party One Nation in McMahon.

One Nation, which wants to curb the nation’s immigration intake, recorded a staggering 8.23 per cent swing in its favour.

McMahon is one of the nation’s most diverse seats with just under half of the electorate being born overseas.

People with Chinese heritage made up five per cent of the population, while 7.2 per cent had Lebanese ancestry.

Another factor in Labor’s results was the strong vote of the United Australia Party, which preferenced the Liberal party.

The party of billionaire Clive Palmer, who spent a whopping $60 million trying to sway voters with election ads, recorded a 4.4 per cent swing in its favour in Chifley.

Fowler was also strong for the UAP, with a 4.2 per cent swing.

Dr Marks says the Liberals would not have won Macquarie without the UAP vote.

Steggall: I think what was rejected was Labor's economic policy
Steggall: I think what was rejected was Labor's economic policy

A socially conservative population

Western Sydney was the only region in the country where a majority voted against legalising same-sex marriage in the 2017 marriage equality survey.

Dr Marks says this conservatism may have played a role in the results but was not the sole reason for the outcome.

"Western Sydney is broadly shifting - at least in the central parts - towards social conservatism. I think we saw that in the marriage survey results.

"That probably wasn’t a narrative that Labor picked up on instead they focused on taxation reform and took a really, really ambitious and wide ranging package (to the electorate)."

Both Chifley and McMahon were targeted by anti-Labor religious protesters from the Christian and Muslim community in the lead up to the election. 

Queenslanders swing against Labor in major blow to opposition
Queenslanders swing against Labor in major blow to opposition

The Australian Christian Alliance told The Sydney Morning Herald they were joined by Muslims at the rallies, with some holding signs reading "hands off our religious freedom" and "hands off our mosques".

Following the election, Labor’s Chris Bowen made a remarkable intervention saying religious Australians believed Labor had abandoned them.

But former western Sydney Labor minister David Borger doesn’t believe religion was a huge factor in the results.

"People were concerned about policies," he told SBS News.

Dr Marks also doubted religion's role as being the sole factor in determining Labor's loss of ground.

"If you saw an extremely pronounced swing against Labor in a seat exhibiting high levels of religious faith and adherence then maybe, but we didn’t see that," he said.

The culturally-diverse population’s ties with family overseas may have also been a factor in the strong Liberal vote.

"Cultural links means there’s a greater consciousness of global circumstances perhaps and the fact that we’re entering what looks like another time of political and economic uncertainty globally may have played on a few minds," he said.

"In that kind of circumstances, when people are bit apprehensive, they decided to stick with the status quo."

Aspirational voters

Mr Borger, the Executive Director of the Western Sydney Business Chamber, said there is a lot of construction and property development happening around the area and Labor's economic policies generated nervousness in the area.

"And the messaging around the policies were not being delivered (properly)," he said.

Dr Marks had a similar view, saying Labor didn’t focus enough on local issues.

"The issues in western Sydney, like a lot of other areas, they're around cost of living, congestion, development, density and those issues didn’t really get a take in Labor party reform, which is unusual for them."

And while its childcare policies and promises around wages would have benefitted voters in the area, Labor's economic policies around negative gearing and franking credits may have scared off voters.

Dr Marks said Labor miscalculated western voters' level of aspirations for wealth.

"While somebody might not own investment properties in western Sydney, they might have aspirations to one day.

"And very few people in western Sydney would take advantage of that very generous concession of franking credits, but Labor didn’t really attend to the fact that many of them aspire to that."

Mr Bowen has argued for the need for Labor to rethink its communication with its 'heartland' base.

"We need to remind ourselves how to talk to the base, which is not inner city," the Labor MP told Nine Entertainment's Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

SBS News reached out to the offices of Mr Bowen as well as senior Labor MPs Ed Husic, Tony Burke, and Michelle Rowland for comment on this piece. None responded to our request.

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