Parramatta Park is where ordinary people get on with their lives, a world away from recent political commentary. Picture: News Corp
Parramatta Park is where ordinary people get on with their lives, a world away from recent political commentary. Picture: News Corp

The truth about Wentworth noone’s willing to admit

LAST weekend, I went to the park and not the polling booth.

I watched weekend visitors to Parramatta Park sharing the public barbecue between their shwarmas, chicken Tikkas, and good old Aussie snags.

While keeping an eye on their kids on the playground, folks generously exchanged food across backgrounds, and politely complimented each other's cooking. As things wrapped up, a lady in a sari, another in a hijab, and red-bearded lad with Eels stubby shorts and full-sleeve tatts cleaned up the hotplate for the next lot of punters.

Here in West-worth, rather than Wentworth, we're generally nice and normal. We're about getting along and getting ahead.

The way we live shows how out of touch much of the commentary about the recent by-election was and why our pollies should ignore it.

Indeed, new records were set for oxygen-free ascents to the highest heights of hyperbole. Competitor commentators poured out paragraph after paragraph about winners and losers, factions, and this interest versus that intrigue.

Parramatta Park is the site of many cultural events, such as the NAIDOC Family and Fun Day, and has public barbecues that visitors regularly use. Picture: Isabella Lettini
Parramatta Park is the site of many cultural events, such as the NAIDOC Family and Fun Day, and has public barbecues that visitors regularly use. Picture: Isabella Lettini

One proclaims that the Liberal base is in revolt, or that the party is even dead - even though about 20,000 people in one small part of Australia actually changed their vote. Another announces that the certain defeat of the Government at the next election - even though he has no access to any marginal seat polling and may not have noticed that Rose Bay is different to Rockhampton.

Others say Kerryn Phelps' victory shows the need for "more progressive" (whatever that means) policies about Nauru or climate change - even though neither of those issues is now or has been in the top 10 of polled community concerns for more than 10 years.

It's unaccountable. It distorts for convenience rather than distils for clarity. It inaccurately generalises from the specific. It's utter bollocks and it's dangerously skewing our politics.

When a senior ABC journo sings political satire on The Insiders, we're hearing the death throes of mature analysis to inform public discourse.

The rotten replacement is a new political entertainment industry with its own Kim Kardashian's of the left and Lady Gaga's of the right. When it's all about superficialities, it becomes OK for tone to count more than ideas, and to simplify each issue down to some "good guys versus bad guys" scene.

The truth is simpler, but it's not convenient. As far as by-elections go, Wentworth was part of the trend of recent times. People tend to strongly vote against sitting governments. Ho hum. But that's too dull a yarn.

And, the truth is that there is no empirical evidence of a situation where a single issue has substantially changed people's votes in several generations of Australian politics. But that doesn't suit the narrative.

Despite recent commentary, Kerryn Phelps’ victory in Wentworth is simply part of a recent trend of voting against sitting governments. Picture: Kym Smith
Despite recent commentary, Kerryn Phelps’ victory in Wentworth is simply part of a recent trend of voting against sitting governments. Picture: Kym Smith

How quickly did we forget that the swing against the NSW Government in the September Wagga Wagga by-election (where there was no leadership change or specific local issue in play) was greater than the Wentworth swing in October.

From election to election, the boring but reassuring reality is that Australians vote practically and tactically, and that's increasing. They take the job interview approach. Is the job applicant competent, stable and decent? Do they have a track-record of getting the job done? Will they stick around? Will they be honest and treat their co-workers respectfully?

It's our default setting - pragmatism and resilience - that defines life in western Sydney and otherwise, and helps us peaceably live and work with each other across vast cultural differences.

Our everyday experience is totally different from much of the confected conflict we read and hear about in media terms - be it about politics, gender or religion. As our pollies buy in to such fake fights, they said good bye to many in the community.

Having watched not only public barbecues but a fair few focus groups, I guarantee you that the following would draw blank faces or be dismissed by the majority of real-world folks: identity politics, the patriarchy, the Paris Agreement, neo-conservative, social justice warrior, Gonski, the location of Australian embassies, and the list goes on.

Ordinary punters in Western Sydney are not concerned with many of the issues that seem to be dominating politics. Picture: AAP/Julian Andrews
Ordinary punters in Western Sydney are not concerned with many of the issues that seem to be dominating politics. Picture: AAP/Julian Andrews

As campaign expert Andrew Laidlaw told me this week: "When our politicians play out media conflicts that don't exist on Australia's suburban streets, they forget their core promise to their voters. No wonder voters aren't paying attention when they are still dealing with the same issues they were 11 years ago."

They're too busy to care and they don't need to care because it's not useful. They're figuring out how to pick the kids up from school on time. They're looking for a nice present for the niece's wedding and whether the groom is a d*ckhead or not. They're studying mortgage rates and Sydney property prices, and whether it's good or bad for them.

They're building cool small businesses, saving money by shopping on e-bay and Gumtree, and achieving the highest degree of education in the world's history - while all the time debating whether the Honey Badger did or didn't do the right thing.

Unlike the loudest of the shouting class, the punters aren't expecting great statesmen or ideological warriors, but just that those they voted for turn up for work and do their best. They're not holding out for grand visions, but just that their voices in favour of decent services and infrastructure are heard and acted on.

And, even better, if there's a bit of a break thrown in too from cost of living pressures. (An incredible 2.3 million people in NSW have now voted with their forms and claimed a car insurance refund of up to $120 bucks.)

So, while those who spin do their spinning, there's really only one clear lesson out of the Wentworth by-election for our politicians. The people of Western Sydney don't live there and didn't vote there.

Pete Shmigel was an advisor to five Ministers and Shadow Ministers, two Leaders of the Opposition, and two Premiers. He is now CEO of an industry association.

@shmigel