Inside Story

A real League of Nations team

Kathy Marks visits Australia’s most-watched suburbs

Kathy Marks 3 September 2013 3177 words

Photo from George Voulgaropoulos’s Behind the Veil series, “a glimpse into the lives of the next generation of Australians living in Sydney’s western suburbs.”

IT’S MARCH 2013 and tomorrow night’s derby between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers is billed as one of the hottest events in town. The stakes are high for both clubs. Having upped their winning streak to ten matches, the Wanderers need just one more victory to clinch the top spot on the league table and a place in next month’s semi-finals. Twice league champions and until this season the only club in town, Sydney FC are determined to teach the upstarts a lesson. Tickets for the clash at Parramatta Stadium sold out weeks ago.

The match will not just be about who plays better football, but – as a Nike advertisement in the stadium proclaims – “who owns this town.” During a previous derby at Sydney FC’s home ground – Allianz Stadium, in the inner east – Wanderers supporters waved banners inscribed with their postcodes, because, explains Eric Berry, a diehard fan and the team’s unofficial photographer, “they’re proud Westies.” The Wanderers call their rivals “Bling FC,” scorning Sydney’s hefty budget, big-name players and “champagne set” image. “They’re latte-sipping Easties,” scoffs Berry. By contrast, the Wanderers, assembled in a hurry last year, consist almost entirely of players rejected by other clubs: a point of pride for their followers, who – in this context, at least – delight in western Sydney’s underdog status.

In Parramatta, red-and-black banners hang from every lamp post, and even festoon the front of the town hall. The ever-helpful Berry has invited me to an eve-of-match training session, where he is warmly greeted by players filing out of the tunnel. The Croatian-born striker, Dino Kresinger, claps him on the back. “How’s it going, mate, great to see you!” “What are you doing here, they let you in?” jests the Lebanese-Australian Tarek Elrich. Germany’s Jérome Polenz is talking to Berry’s seventeen-year-old son, Jake, along with Youssouf Hersi, an Ethiopian-born Dutchman, Aaron Mooy, a Dutch-Australian, and the captain, Sydney-born Michael Beauchamp. “They’re a real League of Nations team,” observes Berry, as the squad – which includes Kosovan-born Labinot Haliti, who came to Australia as a refugee – starts limbering up.

The players, says Berry, “consistently go out of their way to be the nicest bunch of bastards you could hope to meet… These are the superstars in the sport I worship, but they’re real people, with no airs and graces. Even Shinji [Ono, the Wanderers’ marquee player and one of the biggest names in Asian football] always says g’day.” Jake relates: “One of the first training sessions I ever went to with Dad, all of them just crowded around us and started saying hello and talking to us. I was just stunned.”

Before putting the Wanderers together, the Football Federation Australia held a series of community forums in western Sydney, soliciting views on everything from the preferred name for a new club to its colours, home base and even style of play. Berry remembers: “We wanted a team that attacks all the time, a style of football that reflects our area, which is solid, dependable and tenacious, nothing flashy.” The federation not only listened to fans, but also delivered everything they requested, which for Sydney’s west – accustomed to its destiny being determined by outsiders – was an unfamiliar, and empowering, experience. “They’ve had ownership of the club since before it was born,” says the Wanderers’ chief executive, Lyall Gorman.

From the start, too, the club’s supporters’ group – the Red and Black Bloc – has been integral to its success, firing up the atmosphere at matches with their chants, theatrics and sheer exuberance. Until a year ago, the western suburbs only had rugby league, its parochial clubs each representing just one district. The Wanderers have helped to coin a regional identity – an identity based on pride, rather than a shared sense of being excluded and looked down on. “We’re from the streets of western Sydney,” the supporters raucously sing as they spill out of their Parramatta drinking-hole, the Woolpack Hotel, and, in a joyous, disorderly fashion, surge across town and into the stadium.

Between 2006 and 2011, every Australian state and territory – even traditionally monocultural Tasmania – registered a leap in the number of people born in non-Anglo countries, with Victoria (19.6 per cent) just ahead of New South Wales. Sydney, as usual, was the most popular destination for new migrants, although Melbourne was not far behind. Nineteen per cent of Australians (and nearly one in three Sydneysiders) now speak a language other than English at home, most commonly Mandarin, followed by Italian and Arabic.

John Kirkman, executive director of the Parramatta-based community arts organisation ICE (Information & Cultural Exchange), argues that “just as migrants have refined and expanded the Australian palate, they’ve done the same in terms of culture. They’ve refined it, enriched it and made it really unique.” Author and social researcher Hugh Mackay goes further, suggesting that “the cultural lessons we’re learning in western Sydney, and the kind of hybrid that’s being created, will eventually have a wider influence on our cultural identity… Already Australians across the board are realising that if you’re trying to articulate what our defining characteristic is now, it’s diversity.”

At the University of Western Sydney, one-third of students are from non-Anglo backgrounds. For chancellor Peter Shergold, “it’s like the real Australia has moved west… That’s where you’re seeing the multicultural diversity that is Australia today.” Jason Clare, whose federal seat includes Bankstown – like Fairfield and Liverpool, a first port of call for new arrivals – believes, “This is base camp. This is where the new Australia is being made, a cosmopolitan, multicultural Australia… What we’re seeing in western Sydney now is a window into the changes the rest of the country is going to face in the years ahead, and the opportunities too. Because… Australia is going to continue to become more multicultural over the next century… and in western Sydney that’s one of our great assets, and one of our strategic advantages.”

It also presents challenges. Julie Owens’s seat of Parramatta (held by 4.37 per cent) incorporates so many ethnic groups and micro-communities that she has to tackle it street by street, and even family by family. “The other day, I came across two blocks of units which the Nepalese community had got together and bought,” she says. “There’s the Jumma people of Bangladesh, they’re two families, and the Muslim community from Sri Lanka, about fifteen families. We’ve got a lovely community from Bhutan, and the indigenous people from Kuwait, and the Fullah people, a nomadic tribe from West Africa. We’ve got everything, really – groups and sub-groups, layer upon layer, it’s like a lattice of these groupings – and you have to do niche campaigning because you can’t reach them otherwise. We do a lot of English-language work, and I do a lot of one on one. If there’s a large family, I’ll invite them in for morning tea.”

Her knowledge of Parramatta’s multiple places of worship – from the Shia mosque in Granville, converted from an old panelbeater’s shop, to the family homes where little groups of Hindus and Buddhists gather – is equally microscopic. The Bahá’ís are in South Wentworthville, the Ismailis in Northmead, the Pentecostals in Granville. Then there are the myriad sporting and community organisations, including seventeen Sudanese soccer teams who play in a competition called One Sudan, and six Lebanese community groups from six different Lebanese villages, each with a hall in Granville. Owens cautions against preconceptions. “People assume that if you’re African, you’re a refugee, but they represent an enormous percentage of our health professionals. I’ll knock on a large, expensive house and find I’m talking to two African doctors.”

To Owens, her electorate “actually is Australia… This is where you can see us, in these suburbs. We have the refugees who turn up with broken hearts, and the children of migrants going to university for the first time, and people buying their first house without any of the family backing you might have in wealthier areas. People start from the beginning here in a lot of ways. We’re really a community of builders, who set about making a life here, and I think we’re that as a nation as well.”

In the suburb of Merrylands, where I accompany her door-knocking one Sunday morning, mansion-style homes of dizzying flamboyance stand alongside unrenovated fibro cottages. Posters advertise an upcoming festival “celebrating what’s great about western Sydney” and featuring African acrobatic displays and skills clinics by Wanderers footballers. Not for the first time, I wonder if the west isn’t one big country town. Owens, who is assisted by three young volunteers, two Afghan Hazara brothers and a Nepalese woman, meets a Lebanese family who celebrated a wedding the previous day; their front patio is still bedecked with white gauze. A Turkish family, who are preparing for a little girl’s birthday party, have put up a mini bouncy castle in their front yard; an Anglo-Australian in singlet and shorts is washing his ute; and a voluble Italian wants help getting his fig tree trimmed.

A middle-aged Labor voter grumbles that “the types of people coming here are not the same class as before… You’ve got migrants who put their feet on the seats [in trains] and spit on the floor and cut their nails… The trains are filthy now, they’re putrid.” As we leave, Owens recounts how Italian and Greek migrants were denigrated when she was growing up. “They used to say that they painted their houses blue, and concreted their yards, and worked in fish and chip shops.”

Each new community, it appears, must undergo this baptism, before – eventually, sometimes grudgingly – being accepted. Intermarriage helps. “It was the same with the Vietnamese when I was a boy,” says Jason Clare, who grew up in Cabramatta, and in 2012 married Louise Tran, daughter of a Vietnamese boat migrant. “They struggled with the stigma of drug gangs. Now that’s all changed, and the second and third generations have become doctors and lawyers.” Clare is optimistic about the future for Australia’s Muslims (who are far from being one homogenous community). “A guy I met earlier today said to me, ‘My religion is Islam, my nationality is Australian. I’m an Aussie.’ Australia rubs off on you, whether you come from the UK or Lebanon.”

A SHORT drive around Werriwa, once Gough Whitlam’s seat, now held by the Labor left-winger Laurie Ferguson, takes you from Macquarie Links, a gated community built around an eighteen-hole golf course, to Claymore, a public housing estate so bleak it evokes comparisons with some remote Aboriginal communities; and from the brick-and-tile houses and industrial estates of Ingleburn to Denham Court Road, south-west Sydney’s “millionaires’ row,” where mansions set on a ridge have clear views all the way to the city.

Socioeconomic as well as cultural diversity characterises western Sydney. The area has produced millionaires like Mark Bouris, the Punchbowl boy who founded Wizard Home Loans, but – like western Melbourne, Logan City south of Brisbane, and Adelaide’s northern suburbs – it also contains clusters of high unemployment and welfare dependency. In Sydney’s west, manufacturing, symbolic of the “old Australia,” still provides 13 per cent of jobs, but is slowly dwindling. Job security is no longer the norm, and “the closer you are to the basic wage, or the more you’re reliant on a jigsaw of part-time jobs, the more that job insecurity bites,” says Hugh Mackay.

In Chris Hayes’s seat of Fowler – the second-most disadvantaged in Australia, after Lingiari in the Northern Territory – the median weekly income is $375 and unemployment is running at 9.9 per cent, nearly double the national level. The focus on Fowler (which includes Cabramatta) as an Indo-Chinese melting pot tends to mask such statistics. Hayes hosted a jobs expo in Liverpool that drew 5000 people, demonstrating, he believes, “that people in the area want employment, they don’t want to not work… It’s not just about money, it’s about social inclusion.” As for the “high-end” jobs which economists argue the west sorely needs, “what I need in my area here is some more blue-collar employment,” says Hayes.

Phillip O’Neill, director of the University of Western Sydney’s Urban Research Centre, warns that “what you don’t want is a global city renowned for its quality of life put under threat by social division, lack of opportunity and possible growing poverty.” Even for the aspirational voters identified by Mark Latham, the former Labor leader, prosperity may be precarious. In otherwise well-off suburbs, remarks O’Neill, an economic geographer, “you can see the unkempt places with a couple of Falcon station wagons on the lawn… The marriage could have split up and there wasn’t enough wealth for each to continue a reasonable lifestyle.” High-cash incomes of the type earned by so-called “white-collar tradies” are vulnerable to economic downturn. “We did a study of mortgage distress for the Reserve Bank [in 2010], and it just reaffirmed that all housing situations are vulnerable to illness, unemployment or family break-up… [Those areas] that are sometimes described as aspirational, you also find consistently the same places showing up with the highest rates of mortgage default.”

The Melbourne-based demographer Bernard Salt is struck by Sydney’s “more intense concentrations” of multiculturalism and poverty. Contemplating his city’s less troubled relationship with its own western suburbs, Salt notes that no part of Melbourne’s west is more than thirty kilometres from the CBD. “You might be poor, but you can see the CBD from Laverton and Sunshine and Broadmeadows; you’re still part of Melbourne. Go to Penrith [nearly sixty kilometres from the Sydney CBD] or Blacktown, and the only time you see the Opera House or the towers of Sydney is on TV that night. You’re physically removed, and culturally shunned.”

In Penrith, they have a different perspective. “The evening sky is wonderful out here,” says Freda Whitlam. “Such a feeling of space and beauty and clouds and sunsets.” A former teacher and school principal, Whitlam is delighted that the University of Western Sydney is producing doctors from its new medical school in Campbelltown. “When I was doing my education diploma, it struck me that any family could have brilliant children… There are plenty of brilliant people in western Sydney, and now through the university they can take advantage of the opportunities.” About one-quarter of the university’s students – one-third of the western Sydney intake – are from disadvantaged backgrounds; most graduates stay on in the west. The university works with sixty public schools in the region, promoting the benefits of tertiary education and encouraging students, says Peter Shergold, “to realise that university is a real possibility.”

Anoulack Chanthivong is a Sydney University–educated economist whose family came to Australia as refugees in 1984. Chanthivong was dux of his high school, and has been a Campbelltown councillor for nine years, serving a term as mayor. Clean-cut, serious-minded and articulate, he appears the ideal Labor candidate. But when he offered himself for preselection for the state seat of Campbelltown in 2010, there was an awkward silence. Eventually, Labor’s national executive – circumventing Chanthivong’s local branch, which was strongly behind him – endorsed Nick Bleasdale, a self-employed carpenter. According to the Macarthur Advertiser, “strong rumours [had been] circulating that NSW ALP bosses do not believe… local voters would vote for the Laos-born man.”

At the 2011 election, Bleasdale was defeated by the Liberals’ Bryan Doyle. Chanthivong describes Labor’s machinations as “disappointing.” As for the rumours about why he was cold-shouldered, the thirty-six-year-old merely says, “Obviously, if that was the case, it would be abhorrent to me. I’ve been in Campbelltown for twenty-five years now, and I’ve always found it a very open and diverse community.”

Some, including Labor insiders, cite that episode as evidence that Labor has “lost the ethnic plot.” Time was when Labor could rely on the support of migrants, but aspirant, business-minded, entrepreneurial Chinese – and Filipinos, and Indians, and Lebanese, both Christian and Muslim – are switching allegiance. As Salma Khan, a Pakistani-Australian buying land for her daughter and son-in-law at Elizabeth Hills, explained, with charming candour, “Before, we were in Labor because my husband was working in a factory. Now we have two 7-Eleven franchises and Liberals are better for business.”

As of 2012, the cities of Auburn, Liverpool and Parramatta all have Australian-Lebanese Liberal mayors. In Liverpool, a Labor stronghold for two decades, Ned Mannoun, a thirty-year-old progressive Muslim, won nearly 44 per cent of the popular vote. In his youth, the well-spoken, personable Mannoun was, briefly, a Labor Party member. “People said, ‘If you want to have a future in politics in this area, you’ve got to be Labor.’” Nowadays he is sure the Liberal Party works harder to promote ethnic talent.

Labor’s links with migrant communities, painstakingly cultivated over many years, loosened following the 2007 federal election, according to one well-placed MP. While Kevin Rudd “did fantastic stuff with Indigenous communities, and especially the Chinese at a leadership level, genuine engagement with ethnic communities went very steeply down,” says the former Rudd colleague. The Liberal Party, meanwhile – particularly under Barry O’Farrell in New South Wales – has belatedly embraced multiculturalism, and is making an unprecedented effort to woo ethnic voters. For the federal election, it has assembled an impressive cast of candidates with migrant backgrounds, next to whom Labor’s MPs look positively WASP-ish. •