Watson is the most multicultural electorate in Australia and racism is an important issue. The lack of access to the National Broadband Network is a key issue for local business owners. The WestConnex road project has been controversial, with 182 homes set for destruction.
Despite being defined as an inner metropolitan area, some in the Watson electorate feel their inner south location and multicultural demographic means they’re often treated as outsiders.
Before the 1993 election, Watson was known as St George. Its name change is a dedication to John Christian Watson, who was the first Labor party member in the world to become a Prime Minister. Watson was born in Valparasio, Chile and raised in New Zealand before settling in Australia. Today, with almost three-quarters of its inhabitants not born in Australia, the electorate is living up to its name. In fact, Watson has the highest population of non-English speakers in Australia.
During the 1980s there were some notable middle-class suburbs within the electorate until the development of the east-west runway at Sydney airport made them less desirable. This, paired with a massive influx of mainly Middle Eastern migrants to the region, changed the demographic of the area and produced a significant decline in Liberal support.
With the abolition of Lowe ahead of the 2010 election, Watson’s boundaries moved further north. This brought the more Liberal voting areas around Strathfield into the electorate, substantially lessening Labor's stronghold on the electorate. However, for the 2016 election, Watson has lost Strathfield to Reid, which has increased ALP’s margin from 6.8 percent to 8.9 percent.
Labor has held the electorate since its conception, with ALP member Tony Burke at the helm since 2004. With the 2013 election seeing Burke win the seat with 57 percent of votes, Watson may not be a focus for the federal election. However, there are warnings from some Liberal ministers that Labor needs to be wary of ignoring constituents that may already feel disenfranchised by the Australian public and their government.
According to the 2011 census, just 27.2 percent of people living in Watson speak only English. This is notably due to the large concentration of Lebanese in Lakemba and Chinese and Koreans in Campsie. This multicultural demographic ensured that Labor won the seat easily until 2010. The 2010 elections saw disillusioned voters in the south and west of Sydney cast double the amount of deliberately informal ballots, cutting Labor’s existing 18.2 percent margin exactly in half. An Australian Electoral Commission study revealed Labor would have lost the 2010 federal election if not for these donkey votes, proving the importance of addressing the people of Watson’s frustrations.
Lakemba local, Ibrahim Saikal, is one of the 55.5 percent Watson constituents born outside of Australia. He believes the high level of migrant constituents has caused the government to treat them differently to those in wealthier parts of Sydney. “As soon as I say I’m from Lakemba, you can see people judging you,” he says. “The government doesn’t care what happens because we’re all foreigners – not white and rich.”
About 20 percent of the electorate identify as Muslim, and current national tensions have left a significant portion of Watson voters feeling isolated by their government. “I’ll vote for whoever cares about normal, everyday, Australian Muslims,” says Saikal. “I’m sick of feeling attacked by my own government.”
As a result of these tensions, Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour is participating in the “It Stops With Me” campaign, organised by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Although Watson is thought to be one of the most harmonious, culturally, and linguistically diverse cities in Australia, it is not immune to racism. “Unfortunately, despite the work that has been done across the country to create harmony,” says Mayor Asfour, “Statistics show one in seven Australians experience discrimination because of their colour or background.”
Other Watson residents are frustrated with the lack of NBN high speed broadband in their area. Although there are limited instances of the provider in some suburbs like Campsie, much of the electorate has been left wondering when they will have access to faster internet. Wiley Park labourer Reinhold Kamilo doesn’t understand the delay. “It’s not like we live out in rural Australia,” he says. “We live in Sydney, so why can’t we have the same kind of internet as the CBD?”
This high level of demand for the NBN may work in Liberal’s favour. The Coalition’s revised NBN 2014 plan to rollout ‘as soon as possible’ may sound more optimistic to voters than Labor’s 2013 NBN plan aiming for installation by 2021. However, with the Coalition’s plan costing an estimated $2-12 billion more than the ALP’s, Watson residents aren’t impressed. “For an extra $12 billion, they should have reached Sydney suburbs by now,” says Kamilo. “What hope do the country people have if we can’t even get it in a capital city?”
Although the NBN has left some voters feeling as though they don’t live in a capital city, their house prices aren’t immune to the Sydney housing bubble. Watson’s median individual income after tax per week is $411 and the average household income after tax is $1044 per work. These incomes pay the median rent of $310 per week or an average mortgage repayment of $2000 per month.
This compares to the neighbouring electorate Grayndler’s average individual income after tax of $738 per week and a median household income after tax of $1580 per week. Their significantly higher incomes cover a median rent of $375 per week, just $65 more than Watson, and an average mortgage repayment of $2427.
Housing affordability will be at the forefront of voters’ mind this election, following a 52.6 percent increase rise since 2013. These elevated housing prices are a major concern for some Watson voters in the 2016 federal election. However, a relatively high number of homes are fully owned (30.9 percent), with 29.4 percent in the process of being purchased by home loan mortgage. This minimises the threat of the demographic drastically changing by a mass exodus of disgruntled renters searching for cheaper housing.
Despite being known as a notionally safe Labor seat, disillusioned voters can easily usurp tradition this federal election. The successful party will need to tackle issues of isolation and resentment in a language its constituents will understand, leaving Watson one to watch.