AUSTRALIA VOTES: Aussie Dream Gone Sour Makes Election Pitch a Hard Call

When he was just one year old, Tony’s young parents packed up their scant belongings and moved from Sydney’s world-famous beaches to build their own home on the city’s then-wild outskirts.

It was the 1980s and his teenage parents, fresh out of senior school and wildly in love, dreamed of a yard with trees to raise their young son.

They were both born and raised on Sydney’s laid-back northern beaches, but knew they could never afford a home of their own so close to the city.

Thirty years later, the web and graphic designer has two children, and a mortgage, of his own, and is among the one in 10 Australians who call Sydney’s sprawling western outskirts home.

“It would be nice to live near the beach but we just couldn’t afford to do that,” says Tony, who doesn’t want his family name revealed. “Our budget pretty much just covers us for all of our outgoings. I don’t know if it keeps me awake at night, but it’s always in the back of my mind … if I was injured and off work, yeah, we’d be stuffed.”

More than 20 percent of Australians work more than 50 hours a week and 60 percent don’t take regular holidays, according to a recent study that interviewed 10,000 people.

Western Sydney is one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas, and with a population of two million is home to just over 10 percent of Australians, as people leave the beaches and harbour for affordable housing, green spaces, and better quality of life.

It has emerged as a key battleground in this Saturday’s election, with both major parties desperately pitching for votes with the area’s stressed, angry and volatile voters. Macquarie, Tony’s electorate, is among the nation’s most marginal seats.

“They moved there because of space and freedom and cheap housing,” said University of Western Sydney demographer David Burchell. “But over the past 10 years it’s become much more densely populated, much more cosmopolitan, and they feel that the quality of life’s started to go backwards.”

Infrastructure has struggled to keep up with the region’s population boom, with hospitals and transport chronically overburdened, and an influx of refugees from Sudan and Afghanistan has made boat people a hotly debated issue.

“Issues like the asylum-seeker one play out much more strongly in places like that than other parts of Sydney,” Burchell said. “To put it very crudely, it probably does nothing for property values. It’s an ugly thing to say but it is a brutal fact.”

According to the 2006 census, western Sydney has the city’s highest rates of welfare dependence and unemployment, greatest number of single-parent families and its lowest education levels, with most relying on trade and service jobs.

Most Sydney households living on less than A$500 (US$447 US) a week were also found in the area. Many families have high mortgage payments to meet and with high levels of loan and credit card debt. In March a study of debt stress in the area found six of Australia’s 10 worst defaulting areas were in western Sydney.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has admitted rising fuel and grocery costs hit such areas hardest and has vowed to keep the economy stable to ease interest rate pressures and inflation, while pledging improvements to transport.

The area has been targeted by politicians in the lead-up to the polls but whatever the outcome of Saturday’s election, one thing is certain: people in Sydney’s west will keep on finding it tough.

“It’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride,” says Tony, who spends five hours each day commuting to and from the city. “But you’ve just got to take the flow.”

* The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s election analyst Antony Green says the election will be extremely tight.

Green’s analysis of the past three Nielsen polls results in the ABC election computer predicting 74 seats for Labor and 73 for the Coalition. Three House of Representatives seats would be held by independents.

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