During the 1996 Federal Election campaign, the man who would become one of Australia’s most popular Prime Ministers sparked a phrase that would define the election.
“Howard’s battlers” were at the centre of the Coalition’s enormous win, and many western Sydney seats – including Lindsay – turned blue for the first time.
Many traditional Labor voters were won over by John Howard’s brand of politics, at a time when interest rates, migration and national security where high on the agenda.
They were hard roads in western Sydney back then. Mortgage holders just trying to get by, starting families and moving into new communities like Glenmore Park, while South Penrith and Jamisontown became hubs where a generation of kids grew up.
The disconnect between east and west was at its peak.
Penrith was suburbia at its stereotypical best. A big night out was a visit to the Black Stump or the Beef and Barramundi, which sat close to the Nepean River but took no advantage of potential water views.
A birthday celebration was at the Top One or Oz Family Restaurants and chain pizza restaurants ruled.
I grew up in this Penrith; a Penrith in which a visit to the beach felt like a holiday and you were told you needed to get out to ever really succeed and make good money.
“Howard’s battlers” defined an election that was held 27 years ago. In those 27 years, Penrith and western Sydney has grown up. So did those battlers, and their families.
And while I accept times are still tough for some, and there will always be those who struggle, family life looks a lot different for many based in the west these days.
Families have two cars, a little bit of money in the bank and enjoy nights out for more than just the odd special occasion.
Work is different and varied; Sydney being more connected than ever before has meant barriers to bigger and better positions are not as troublesome as they once were.
And indeed it may be that the “battlers” have been reversed. While city dwellers struggle with ridiculously high rents and are mortgaged to the hilt, the burden is a little looser on those who’ve set up their lives in western Sydney.
Anyone who lives in western Sydney knows we’ve been through pretty significant change, and are closer to the type of life you’d find in the city than ever before.
Restaurants that you once never would have seen in Penrith are thriving. Bars, too.
There is a business community that is only strengthening.
A trip to the city can take 45 minutes, if not less, and no longer feels like a mammoth effort.
We know this in the west, but I’m not sure anybody else does.
In fact I’m convinced politicians still think “Howard’s battlers” remain, just waiting for them to save the day.
Politicians talk about western Sydney and “working families” as if we’re another class of people struggling to rub two coins together while we watch four free-to-air TV channels and wait for the dial-up Internet to kick in.
“Howard’s battlers” and their kids have changed.
This belief that western Sydney is somehow “out there” and that you need gimmicks to win us over, or to convince us that you know what living here is like.
I’m convinced that politicians never truly meet the “modern Penrith” even when they do spend time on the ground, with carefully curated visits to people who suit the particular issue being addressed; issues that while important, are not necessarily the best example of how far the city has come and the conversations being had around the dinner table.
And it’s not just politicians who haven’t moved on from thinking the west hasn’t evolved in 27 years.
Many big businesses remain oblivious to the disposable income that exists in regions such as ours; indeed some believe that Penrith is some regional outpost and not part of the greater Sydney area.
Major retailers open Penrith-based stores but fail to stock them with the quality of locations further east. When the sales aren’t great, they blame the area and not their lack of understanding of it.
Perhaps it was once embarrassing to say you were from the west; now it’s embarrassing if you’re from the city but have almost zero knowledge of the most cosmopolitan, exciting and advanced part of Sydney.
And there are so many people in that boat.
You come across them everywhere: at work, where being based in the CBD or eastern suburbs has provided an echo chamber for many working in PR, at advertising agencies or in corporate Australia.
The amount of businesses who concentrate so much of their marketing and promotions in the city when their core audience is actually from western Sydney never surprises, but constantly baffles.
Money left on the table.
And in everyday life, it seems like so many in the city still believe Penrith is as “far away” as it was 27 years ago when John Howard was pounding the pavement.
They are completely oblivious to the reality that while their own worlds evolved, so did the west – at a more rapid rate.
Western Sydney is already winning. We’ve arrived at the destination so many politicians and those in the corporate world still think it is trying to get to.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.