By LUCY KELLY:
Described as the most bitter rivalry since Athens and Sparta, the war between the Fibros and the Silvertails is the feud between two Sydney football teams that turned into a war about class. It began in 1978, when Roy Masters took over the west, as coach. He coined the phrase – the Fibros and the Silvertails – to describe the struggles of the western suburbs against Sydney’s “elite” in the city’s north and east. In 2008, Paul Oliver directed a documentary about this class war. It describes the western suburbs as Sydney’s “working class heartland”, but also as a place of high unemployment and low prospects. “They thought they were better than us. Not just better players, but better people.” This was one player’s opinion of the silvertails, even after three decades.
Australian National Rugby League superstar Mark Geyer thinks people from the west should “stick together” because of the stigma that is associated with the west, and his own personal experiences of “Postcode Racism” (as he calls it). Last year, an article in The Daily Telegraph had the well-known NRL player recounting his experience of job hunting after he left school in grade 10. “I applied for 10 apprenticeships, and I only got one call back. He didn’t give me the job, but he made a comment that my postcode wasn’t doing me any favours,” hence, ‘Postcode Racism’. At the time, the League player was living in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt. “I decided to resubmit applications with my nan’s address and her Auburn postcode. Sure enough, I received over eight responses.”
George Morgan, a sociologist from the University of Western Sydney, calls the stigma attached to people from the western suburbs the “badlands stereotype” which he points out is “actually a relatively recent thing”. This stereotype started in the 1970s, when the Australian government stopped building social housing (usually made from Fibros).
The vision of western Sydney during the 1950s and the 1960s was working class. “But a respectable working class,” says the sociologist. Morgan says that after the Second World War, the Australian Government built social housing so that the “standard family” had the opportunity to live the “Australian Dream”. Or to be given the “Australian birth right – a home of their own” a slogan of the Labor Party’s campaign during the 1950s, which aired on the ABC.
But since the mid 1970s, very little public housing has been built. “Particularly in the ’70s, Australia – or even Sydney really – saw a rise in unemployment, single-parent families and general welfare dependency across Sydney.” So, those considered more in need were placed in social housing. Also, according to a census taken during the late 1970s, only 13.1 per cent of tenants in social housing in Sydney’s western suburbs were full-time employees. Morgan says this highlights “the public housing constituency is now vastly different to that envisaged by post-war planners.”
Keith Jacobs, a sociologist from the University of Tasmania agrees there is now a stigma attached to social housing. “The negative perception of public housing can be traced back to the failure of successive governments to provide sufficient investment” which, Jacobs says, is unfortunately affecting Sydney’s west.
Jacobs and Morgan agree a large factor in the social and economic divide between Sydney’s west, and Sydney’s “elite” – as described by Roy Masters – is the stigma attached to public housing.
The Australian Tax Office data of personal income – which, has been reduced to postcode and population – revealed that in 2013 the bottom 20 per cent of Sydney’s income earners live in the west, and the top 20 per cent in suburbs clustered around the Harbour, like the north shore suburb Mosman.
So, how do we change the stigma? “It’s complicated,” Morgan said. “Public perceptions of Western Sydney have been strongly influenced by negative media representations.” In April last year, Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party posted an alarming advertisement on Facebook: “Under Labor, crime is out of control in Western Sydney,” it declared in heavy typeface on a suitably black background. Slashed across the advertisement was a strip of police tape, which had “CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS” along it. Prime Minister at the time, Julia Gillard had just completed a weeklong visit to Rooty Hill (known as the heart of Sydney’s West), where she made a huge fuss about establishing an anti-gang taskforce.
So, just how out of control is Sydney’s west? The Australian bureau’s ‘Trends in recorded criminal incidents, violent and property offences over the 60 months to September 2012, NSW Metropolitan statistical subdivisions’ reveal that crime in Sydney’s west has actually reduced on average every year for the past five years. However, unlike popular media – or even politicians – the bureau doesn’t (or cannot) simply declare western Sydney to be one amorphous mass. It is split into separate areas.
Morgan identifies this as the problem. “You would not say that living in Mosman is the same as living in Hornsby, would you?” Both suburbs belong to Sydney’s north, however they’re completely different. The former sits on the edge of Sydney’s harbour; the latter is over 15 stops further north on the train line. “So, why should Sydney’s west be summarised into one large group?” Morgan asks.
According to the bureau’s statistics, in inner western Sydney, central western Sydney, and outer southwest Sydney, both violence and property crime has reduced on average each year, ranging from 2 per cent to 5.6 per cent.
Since access to public housing is conferred by low income, Jacobs believes that it is what has created the pockets of exclusion and disadvantage. “The worst have been selected and gathered together.” This process has tended to be lost in public commentary, which mistakes cause and effect and sees public tenants as “welfare dependant” or uninterested in any economic opportunities. People are too resistant on public housing, “rather they do not want to be see the tenants of such housing living near them”. But now, in parts of western Sydney, like the suburb of Minto, old government housing is being knocked down and twice as many houses are being built in the same amount of space. “The developers are entitled to half those houses, and the other section is devoted to social housing,” reveals Morgan. He believes it is something that should be done all over Sydney, developers can profit, but at the same time social housing can still be accommodated. However, he does mention the value of the property could be depressed if it is on the private market.
But could it be a way to change the social folds of the west? Jacobs insists, “contrary to the popular perception of Western Sydney as a depressed area, it actually has been one of Australia’s main growth regions in the last 20 years. It’s true, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics; areas of western Sydney had the five fastest growing populations.”
Does this mean prosperous horizons await Sydney’s west? No one agrees with prosperous horizons more than David Borger. “Through a strong and vibrant business community the west of Sydney will meet its potential!” Borger is the Western Sydney Director of the Sydney Business Chamber, and a passionate advocate of Sydney’s west. Borger says that taking place right now in Sydney’s west, particularly in Parramatta’s growing CBD is the “rise in property values, night time economy and restaurants and cafes which are open until late”. The Parramatta stadium is less than a 10-minute walk, and with 20 000 people showing up to games “it is contributing to the nightlife in the large western Sydney suburb”.
Morgan says it was roughly six years ago, when Borger – who was then the mayor of Parramatta – took Sharon Zukin around Parramatta to “pump her for ideas for how to develop the city of Parramatta”. Zukin is a professor at the City University of New York Brooklyn College in New York. She is one of the United States’ most well known sociologists, an expert on reshaping cities, and very progressive, according to Morgan.
Borger recalls an idea of Zukin’s. “One suggestion was for subsidised housing. She said that cities should find their own authenticity rather than replicate what exists everywhere else.”
It is almost a decade later, but the University of Western Sydney is set to build a high-rise building in Parramatta’s Central Business District. With the existing Parramatta campus almost at full capacity, it means that the university can double international enrolment, which currently is at 4000 students. The site could also be used to target post-graduate students. “This decision is going to create more momentum for the city than any other over the last two decades,” Borger says. Cities just don’t get lumps of investment like this in terms of capital and sheer numbers of people in such a brief time frame, he said. “It is a game changer and it will change the Parramatta CBD forever, and you know, give it an unknown level of vibrancy.” The Australian Institute of Criminology says that towns and cities that have universities are actually safer places to live. Borger agrees. “Cities that have universities are blessed, it not only brings young and interesting people, but they’re generally considerate people, income earners and want a future. Hopefully the town they’re in is lucky enough to keep them!”
Morgan has noticed ‘The Daily Telegraph’ is running a “fair go for the west” (as he puts it), which he finds interesting as the paper is owned by Rupert Murdoch. He says that during the last election, the Murdoch press supported Abbott. “This is a compensatory gesture; we have to champion the westies because they are the salt of the earth. They don’t want to be seen abandoning ordinary people. But just wait for the backlash of the new budget.” The Daily Telegraph is just trying to compensate for their clear support of the Liberal party in the last election, “that is my reading of it anyway”.
Morgan has found that there is this idea that if you live in a brick house you are better off. “However, Fibro, although a cheap building material (and if we excuse the asbestos) was actually a very good, and a very strong building material. It had durability.” Borger says that no suburb in Sydney’s west is yet an “Elizabeth Bay of Sydney’s east”, but its transformation has certainly begun. Soon enough, the feud between the Fibros and the Silvertails will be a battle played only on the field.
Thumbnail image: courtesy of The Daily Telegraph