On the ground in Newtown: NSW election 2015

Wendy Bacon

This story is told from the perspective of an insider in the Newtown election campaign won by the Greens on March 28.

I'm an insider in the sense that I've lived in inner Sydney for 48 years and been part of the Newtown community for 28 years. Although not a member of the Greens, I actively supported the campaign that resulted in Jenny Leong winning nearly 46% of the primary vote and 60% of the two party preferred vote.

The new state seat of Newtown was formed from parts of the seats of Marrickville, that was always held by Labor, and Sydney that has been held by Independents Clover Moore and more recently Alex Greenwich since it was formed in 2007. Based on the 2011 election results, the Greens were predicted to win the new seat but no one anticipated the size of Leong's win against Labor's Penny Sharpe, who despite her loss will soon be parachuted back into her old Labor seat in the NSW Upper House.

Strong support on streets

I felt that something was shifting in Newtown on the last Saturday before the election when we were handing out Greens leaflets in Newtown's famous King Street. As a lifelong political activist, I've done my share of leafleting for resident action and social justice causes including the No Aircraft Noise Party in the 1990s. In recent years, I've delivered leaflets and handed out on election day for the NSW Greens. Never had I experienced anything like the positive response that we received that morning. Many people wished the Greens well or indicated "you've got my vote.", some even crossing their fingers.

We woke up next day to a disconcerting Reachtel poll published by Fairfax Media that had Labor's Sharpe leading the primary vote and winning with a two-party-preferred=vote of 56.5% to Leong on 43.5%. Could it be that Greens supporters were simply more enthusiastic this year rather than greater in number?

It turned out that our initial impressions were correct with Leong gaining nearly 46 % of the primary vote, the highest ever recorded by a Greens candidate in Australia. Even allowing for the Greens vote to gain strength during the last week, someone needs to investigate why Reachtel got the trends so wrong.

The Greens also won two other lower house seats. Jamie Parker increased hiswinning margin in Balmain while Tamara Smith won Ballina on the Far North Coast of NSW. With a massive swing against the National Party, Adam Guise came fairly close to winning Lismore. Greens were also ahead of Labor in a number of other seats won by Liberals and maintained their hold on five seats in the Upper House although their overall vote didn't increase.

Being selfish by not being selfish

These wins were bound to send Murdoch's Newscorp into a spin. It was the reverse of what The Australian's editors had hoped for when they called for the Greens to be eliminated at the ballot box back in 2010. Predictably, Newscorp's journalists were quick to explain the win by focusing on 'rich voters' of the inner west. The underlying message is that wealthy voters self-indulgently betray their class interests by voting Green. The message dovetails with Labor's long term myth that Greens voters are 'closet Liberals' or 'Liberals in disguise' who are disdainful of concerns of less privileged voters in other regions of Sydney.

Right-wing commentator Chris Kenny wrote in The Australian : Green voters are "indulging their post-material concerns from a comfortable material base." In other words, Greens voters are being selfish for being concerned about more than their own immediate selfish economic interests.

Postmaterialistm is about pursuing other broader goals after fulfilment of basic economic needs such as food and housing. These goals can include environmental sustainability or accountability of government. Kenny's concern is not that Newtown residents are rich but that they won't just get on with the job of becoming richer.

Heaven forbid that concerns about the LNP and Labor's horrific policies that punish asylum seekers on off-shore gulags and support for data retention might worry voters. When Greens voter Annandale resident John Dobbin was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph, he told them he was indeed concerned about these issues. But they decided not to publish those comments in Nimby vote a bit rich. Newscorp journalists learn to know what suits the preferred narrative.

Image sourced from Ekektikos Delectus Blog

My intention in this blog post is to provide a more nuanced glimpse into the Newtown electorate, which is mostly in the Local Government Area (LGA)of City of Sydney but also takes in parts of Marrickville (LGA) on its Western side. It runs in a narrow strip across the city from Petersham in the West to Surry Hills in the East and from near Sydney Park in the South to Parramatta Road in the North.

Electoral map of Newtown

I started my investigation by reading Antony Green's profile and used Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 census data for more detail on a range of suburbs within the electorate. Most of what I found will be no surprise to Newtown residents.

Newtown is the most densely populated electorate in NSW with nearly 7000 persons per square kilometre. This means that people live closer together than in other areas. You can feel that on our streets, which are busier than the quiet streets of suburbia. There is also a higher proportion of group share households than in most other parts of NSW.

Newtown has the second highest proportion of rented dwellings (51.1%). This means that there is a high level of mobility with people moving in and out of the electorate. It includes Sydney University and is near to the University of Technology Sydney and has the second highest proportion of residents attending a tertiary education institution (14.6%) in NSW.

It also has a high proportion of residents of working age. Most of the high proportion of residents in employment, work more than 40 hours a week.

At Mark Coultan reported in The Australian yesterday, Newtown has the state's highest proportion of residents who tick 'no religion' on the census. As well as agnostic and atheist, this category includes 'humanist', which is where I'd put myself. Although The Australian used the negative word 'godless' to describe 'no religion', atheism doesn't imply no values. Many people who tick a religion box on the census have very little active religious involvement. It could be that more people in Newtown have the confidence to declare their doubts or rejection of religion. "Humanism" implies not just secularism but also an acceptance of other human beings, including their cultural and religious choices. Although this is speculation, I wonder if this side of 'godlessness' could be linked to the concern with non-material values that worries Chris Kenny. When I've asked people what they like about Newtown, they often say that they enjoy the acceptance of all kinds of people.

I bumped into Quills who was taking time off from busking

 

While I was writing this blog post, I bumped into Quills who was taking time out from busking in Newtown. He told me that property prices do make it hard for people to live in Newtown but he likes to spend time in Newtown because everybody can feel that they are accepted whatever their identity.

Less car dependency

Newtown is also less car dependent than other electorates. It has the lowest proportion of households in the state with two or more vehicles. Most people use public transport or walk to work. This may explain why they're not keen to see billions of tax payer dollars poured into tollways that will only worsen congestion in inner Sydney. This doesn't mean they are not concerned about western Sydney residents who'll pay high tolls for roads that don't solve the city's transport problems or about many thousands of other Sydney residents who also rely on poor public transport services.

In the suburb of Newtown, 31% of households didn't own a car in 2011 compared with a state average of 10.1%. 49% owned one car. When they drive, they're constantly slowed down by traffic congestion which is why they're opposed to transport plans that will deliver thousands more cars onto their doorsteps.

Rich but not that rich

Wealth is of course relative. According to the 2011 Census, the LGA of Sydney s not as wealthy as the LGA of Woollahra to the east or most of the North Shore. It is however wealthier than Parramatta in the mid west of Sydney. Both of these seats were won by LIberals. On average however, the community is considerably better off than the western suburbs of Fairfield or Auburn that were won by Labor. We are of course obscenely wealthy when compared to the average citizen of PNG, Cambodia or India.

While there are variations across the electorate, we can safely say that the median (50% above and below) household income for Newtown residents ranges from about $1400 to $1800 which is several hundred higher than the median for NSW which is $1237. This is well below the median household income for Mosman which is $2,465.

Looked at from an individual point of view, the median personal income for Mosman is $1,117 compared to $890 in Stanmore, one of the wealthier neighbourhoods of Newtown. $890 is considerably higher than the average for NSW which is $561. We're rich but not that rich.

While very wealthy Mosman safely elected Liberal Jillian Skinner, even some citizens living over the other side of the Harbour bridge are showing dangerous signs of non-materialism with more than 15% voting for Greens candidate ex Democrat politician Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans of BugaUp fame.

Housing stress

I looked more closely at Enmore, which sits inside the electorate of Newtown. The median income in Enmore is $892. But even here 17.6% of households had a weekly household income of less than $600. Nearly half of Enmore dwellings are rented at an average rent of $400, which is $100 more than the NSW average. Significantly, 17.6 % of households were paying more than 30% of their income in rent which is regarded as a sign of housing stress.

You can understand why people experiencing expensive and insecure housing might have found Jenny Leong's launch of the Greens rental rights policy appealing. At the candidates forum at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, Labor's Sharpe acknowledged the housing problem but didn't support the rental rights policy.

Many Greens voters are not rich at all

21.0% of households in Newtown had a weekly income of more than $3,000 which means about a fifth of households are certainly wealthy. Even if all these rich voters preferred the Greens, this wouldn't account for the 46% of people who voted Green. In fact, nearly 18% of the Newtown electorate voted Liberal so we can safely assume that this included a fair proportion of wealthier Newtown voters. We know that Labor voters also include lawyers, public servants, consultants and well established tradesmen so a proportion of the 30% who voted Labor are also amongst the wealthier group of residents.

As we can see from this analysis, Green voters included residents from across the economic spectrum.

And that's exactly how it felt on the ground.

Not privileged

A few weeks ago, we door knocked voters living in a couple of blocks of Redfern which is part of the electorate of Newtown. Residents who were home were mostly happy to talk. We listened to their stories of health care and social services neglect. One woman told us she had been sent home from a scheduled heart operation several times because surgeons ran out of time at a major inner city public hospital. Another woman was recovering from cancer after her thyroid was removed. She was anxious because she has been unable to get the disability pension although she was not well enough to work. One woman in her eighties volunteered that she would definitely be voting Greens and others were at least happy to take our brochure. Once many would have pronounced themselves to be Labor voters but now no one expressed enthusiasm for Labor. Although most of these voters may have voted Labor on March 28, their comments indicated that they're disillusioned with Labor and feel betrayed by corruption of both major parties.

Over In Newtown, on the eve of the election, I spoke to an 85 year old man who said he'd be voting Labor because he'd voted for them all his life. He said "I'm a Labor voter but tell Jenny Leong she's doing a good job."

Those involved in the campaign were confident before the election that a considerable number of Newtown residents on low incomes would be voting Green.

Prepolling

In the week before the election, I stood on a prepoll booth won by the Greens near Enmore Road in Newtown. I knew both of my fellow volunteers from 1970s campaigns against property developments. Neither were rich. One had stuck with Labor, the other had only recently swung Green as a result of what she regards as draconian and cruel Labor asylum seeker policy.

I again felt that the political ground was shifting when an older Portuguese Australian couple, who once would have been loyal Labor voters, told me that they only needed the Green how to vote card.

During the campaign, I constantly found that my own stereotypes about who would be the most likely Greens voters were being challenged.

On the ground in Erskineville Village

Despite these experiences, no one can deny the process of 'gentrification' that has affected the entire inner region of Sydney beginning with the property boom in the 1960s. Indeed without the builders' labourers Green Bans, entire inner city neighbourhoods would have been emptied of their working class residents by the end of the 1970s. (By the way, the then secretary of the builders labourers' union Jack Mundey wrote a letter to Newtown residents endorsing Jenny Leong. This was hand delivered by campaign volunteers.)

I've lived on the border of the suburb of Newtown and Erskineville for nearly 30 years. My partner Chris Nash, then a young journalist, was one of the earlier group of younger middle class professionals who moved into our street in the late 1970s. The previous owners of were part of the Yugoslav community, who along with Greeks and Macedonians had moved into the area in the 1950s and 60s.. Some of their children still live or run businesses in Newtown today. Only one household of residents who lived in the street in the 1960s is still here. Most of the others have died. House prices rose and continued to rise.

From my experience I'd suggest that most of those who bought houses decades ago want to remain living in Newtown. They don't cheer every time values rise because they know that high housing prices will stop people who'd like to live in Newtown moving into the area. This includes their own adult children who grew up in Newtown.

Many of these residents have been progressive voters all their lives, swinging between the Labor and the Greens. They're part of a community that fought for road closures, aircraft noise, saved open space for a Green Ban Park and campaigned to keep local students int he Newtown Performing Arts High School.

View across a park that resulted from residents' road block in the late 1970s

Pathway created by resident's roadblock in the late 1970s

Most home owners in our neighbourhood would regard themselves as privileged and would probably agree with Chris Kenny that they have a 'comfortable material base'. But they have not necessarily become more conservative as they grow older. Their working lives have been marked by the impact of neoliberalism that led to ongoing restructures, sackings and cuts to both the public institutions and large companies that employed them. The beneficiaries of affordable education, they are acutely aware that life today is not as easy for young adults, who must deal with student fees and debt and survival in a so-called 'flexible workforce.'

Other home owners have deliberately moved from the outer west to the Inner west. Erksineville School was nearly closed by the NSW Labor government in the later 1990s is full of the children of newer residents. Property investors have bought houses and rented them to students, teachers, young lawyers, journalists, architects and retail, office and hospitality workers who stream through the railway stations each morning. Students and recent graduates in their twenties are concerned about educational debts, lack of job opportunities, high rents and insecure housing. They're also concerned about the future, particularly climate change.

Erskineville Railway station marks the boundary with the seat of Heffron where the community includes similar home owners and tenants including those in public housing. Thousands of newer mortgaged home owners and tenants are filling the apartment blocks that are rapidly springing up in Erskineville. Most people I know believe it's reasonable policy to house more residents nearer the CBD rather than on the fringes of Sydney but they share the view of the local residents group Friends of Erskineville that governments need to plan for more public infrastructure including public transport, schools and childcare before granting development approvals. There's a feeling that both major parties have been captured by the property development lobby.

During the recent election campaign, there was a candidates' forum in old Erskineville Town Hall organised by Friends of Erskineville. Sharpe didn't help her cause when she sidestepped questions about Labor's position on the Westconnex. She failed to answer questions on other issues because she unexpectedly left halfway through the forum, although the date had been set weeks in advance. While this episode would've affected few if any votes, it didn't impress residents who were present.

The results

On the Erskineville side of Newtown where we live, there are two booths, one at Erskineville Public School and the other at Newtown Public School. The Greens easily won both these booths with a combined primary vote of 58%. Leong more than doubled the vote of Labor's Sharpe who got only 28% of the primary vote.

Overall, the Greens won 30 of 34 booths in the electorate including Redfern Town Hall. One booth was only narrowly won by Labor. Two of the other three were small booths. The Greens convincingly won the IVote and the Pre Poll. After the Animal Justice and Cyclists Party were distributed, Jenny Leong was already on 49% of the vote. She didn't need to rely on preferences of the nearly 18% of Liberal voters. Most Liberals exhausted their votes but those who did preference, slightly preferred Labor over the Greens.

Across the border in Heffron which is held by Labor's Ron Hoenig, Greens'Osman Faruqi also won three of the booths closest to the Newtown electorate in Erskineville, Alexandria and St Peters.

The truth is that in Newtown, Labor has lost of substantial part of the vote across all groups. Community opposition to WestConnex was an important factor. But the Greens vote has been growing for years.

Labor has also lost its moral legitimacy through its punishment of asylum seekers and failure to stand up on civil liberties issues such as data retention. While corruption of Liberal and Labor governments got little media attention during this campaign, we found an underlying community concern about hidden deals that don't appear to be in the public interest. A desire for honestly in government is a non-material value that connects to concerns about material decisions, such as approval for James Packer's casino and the short sighted Westconnex.

Greens voters were poor, comparatively wealthy and in between. My own observation on the day was that younger people, especially younger women, strongly prefer the Greens.

After the win

The first comment Jenny Leong made on election night was that saving affordable housing in Chippendale for Aboriginal residents would be a top priority. She formally became an MP on Friday. On Friday evening she attended the Save Remote Communities rally in Sydney.

Leong's second statement was an equally big one. She vowed we would stop the Westconnex coming anywhere near Newtown. Yesterday a group of residents met to discuss strategy for stopping the WestConnex tollway system. They'd already had a post election discussion with Leong and are confident that they can rely on her to be there on the campaign trail.

There's lesson in that for Newscorp and for Labor, not that I expect they'll be interested.

Jenny Leong at Reclaim the Streets rally. Penny Sharpe declined an invitation to speak at the rally and Labor member for Heffron did not even reply to an invitation.

Postscript

I just remembered the very important topic of coffee. It's true that we like our coffee in Newtown although when visiting the western suburbs of Sydney and even NSW country towns in recent years, I've got the impression that their residents do a fair bit of latte sipping too.

It's time for a piccolo at one of my favourite cafes - Fleetwood Macciato. As usual it's full of people chatting and laughing or working on their computers. Now that's self-indulgence for you.

Note: I originally had the Greens winning 31 of the booths but after rechecking, I have corrected that to 30.

My favourite: A Piccolo coffee at Fleetwood Mac