Why I can’t vote Labor

By rights I should be voting Labor tomorrow, as was once a matter of course. A great-uncle was the Labor mayor of Footscray in Melbourne’s industrial west, where I grew up, and the first ballot I ever cast helped put Gough Whitlam in the Lodge. Perhaps I should feel guilty about that now, being  older and wiser and recognising with the benefit of hindsight that while the duplicitous Billy McMahon traded in leak and intrigue, it was Gough’s three-year circus that set the gold standard for mischief and incompetence.

But I don’t feel guilty, not a bit. To someone raised beneath the pong and pall of tall chimneys, the party of shop stewards and calloused hands was the only choice. And anyway, on December 7, 1972, only a clairvoyant could have known just what a rabble Whitlam had assembled.

Things have changed since then in the west. Grandma’s old house in Yarraville, which sold for $28,000 upon her death in 1988, recently changed hands for better than three-quarters of a million dollars, which is a staggering sum for what remains a lightly renovated two-bedroom wharfie’s cottage. Williamstown at the Yarra’s mouth, where I now live, is no longer a slum by the sea, as the Beemers and odd Italian exotic in the local supermarket’s carpark attest. It is a transformation brought home the other week, when transplanted Brighton girl and Age columnist Suzy Freeman-Greene avowed that while she loves her new home, the neighbourhood would benefit from a ban on those nasty trucks and their icky industrial cargoes.

That column captures the reason, even more than Labor’s six years of back-stabbing and smear, I couldn’t back Team Rudd in a pink fit, not even if Tony Abbott were to be revealed as McMahon’s scheming reincarnation. The west has changed, but tomorrow my seat of Gellibrand will return a Labor candidate sure as eggs. But a Labor candidate of the old school, a horny handed son of toil? Not at all.

Gellibrand’s certain victor is a chap from Toowoomba, Tim Watts, who came south as an apparatchik of the former state Labor government, found refuge in the office of failed censor-in-chief Stephen Conroy and then secured pre-selection after a ferocious factional battle that turned on his master’s warlord skills at assembling the numbers.

Would Watts recognise the great Barry Round, the former Bulldog ruckman and Williamstown Seagulls premiership player who, if we of the west could anoint saints, would wear a halo brighter than the lights atop the Westgate Bridge? Does Watts remember the day that same bridge fell down, or when our landmark lighthouse burned and collapsed into the Bay?  Has he been here to witness the area’s transition from white, kit-bag toting working class through waves of New Australians — first the Italians, then the Greeks, followed by Turks, Vietnamese, Lebanese and now the mixed crop of boat people, black Africans and well-heeled white trendies?

He would be well aware of that final category, certainly, as that is both his mirror and core constituency. The rustadons will give him their votes come what may; so too, most likely, the ethnic blocs that branch-stackers find so useful. Watts can take their support for granted, meaning the passionate concerns of his fellow white and well-heeled arrivals – the sort of who can spring $800,000 for a long-dead wharfie’s digs – will shape his focus and priorities as much as he reflects theirs.

They still read The Age, those people, not noticing what a shabby rag it has become to all who lose no sleep about climate change, gay marriage and the endless urgency to prioritise the list of wronged groups in need of immediate apologies. They are the people who whine about traffic congestion, then further constrict the roadways with bicycle lanes and demands that anything with an engine travel at no more than 40kph.

In our local bookshop, they complain– as I heard one do only last month – that no respectable store would display The Lucky CultureNick Cater’s wonderful critique of luvviedom. The local urge to suppress and silence should come as no surprise, given that this is Conroy turf and the person Watts aims to replace in the lower house is the loathsome Nicola Roxon, the horror-show nanny from Central Control & Casting.

But that is not the worst of their antics, which is the virulent condescension they reserve for those not quite so in tune with fashion. Think here of your traditional Labor voters, the ones who leave school early, work with their hands and live in Gellibrand’s less refined precincts and other places further to the west – just over the border, for instance, in the seat of Lalor, where the removalists have just cleaned out Julia Gillard’s electorate office on Werribee’s main drag.

Even at a distance of decades my great-uncle, the mayor, would have known their Labor kind because he was one of them. He would have understood the desire to get ahead and pay off the mortgage, to see  kids leave school both numerate and capable of writing a simple, grammatical application for a job. If you had told him of the national curriculum’s rolling feast of guilt and victimology, he would have called you a liar and, quite likely, knocked you on your arse to drive home the point that Labor wanted kids in government schools to emerge as sharp as those silvertail sprogs from “the other side”, as everyone out west once called leafier, Liberal-voting places like Kew and Brighton.

While those Labor voters of old wouldn’t have liked the endless procession of trucks on Francis Street, they would at least have recognised their rumble as the sound of jobs and security. Buy a cheap house on a known heavy-transport route, they would have scoffed, and then you go and complain about the noise! They would have reckoned the anti-truck protesters to have more front that Myer’s, and quite likely some would have tapped the sort of winter language normally reserved for umpires when free kicks go against the Western Bulldogs (who are always blameless, it goes without saying, even when Big Will Minson has just clocked someone).

In another universe, one in which Kevin Rudd might be an honest man and his team not riven by hatreds hidden only by the cardboard smiles of election posters, I still couldn’t vote Labor. Not until the party of my late great-uncle puts aside its airs and graces and remembers what once it stood for and the people it sought to represent.

Truth be told, I probably couldn’t vote for the bastards even then. But at least they would be worth considering.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online. He wishes Melbourne’s west was as disenchanted with Labor as the polls suggest Sydney’s has become  

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