Whenever you hear the phrase “Western Sydney” and “culture”, the jokes come out. Cover bands, RSLs, Panthers, Rooty Hill RSL, UFC, V8s, etc. Cue pictures of Anglo Celtic men of a MMM listening age, or a touch younger, shouting at people and leering at scantily clad women. Or, from those Fat Pizza people, the “fully sick” Lebanese or the more recent Housos. It is as realistic as any other stereotype about the West – there’s a grain of truth, but it doesn’t ring true with the entire region. Over at The Preston Institute, I have blogged a fair amount about this topic – the Mythical Westbeing one such post.
There’s been some good work coming out the media this week in the way it has deal with the question of Western Sydney, and Jack Waterford’s piece in the Canberra Times provides a fairly apt and rounded picture of the challenge that the ALP face in Western Sydney. Waterford also provides an accurate picture of the West – that it’s 5 separate cities, rather than being a unified rump. Liverpool, Campbelltown, Penrith, Blacktown and Parramatta are the five – and these places provide a shifting and difficult to categorise picture of the cultural mix of the region. Each place needs to be considered on its own terms.
In terms of cultural mix, Parramatta defies the stereotyped “westie” image comprehensively, with the Parramatta Riverside Theatre, the annual Parramasala Festival, which celebrates the considerable Indian community in the area and a good set of cafes and restaurants that are rarely mentioned in Herald restaurant reviews; Penrith has the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre and the Lewers Bequest and Regional Art Gallery – more of which I talk about in this post; Campbelltown has a nice art gallery renovated with the help of the Carr Labor Government – along with the occasional visit by the Sydney Festival; similarly Liverpool was provided with an enlarged gallery and new theatre funded by the Carr Government. Blacktown also has a diverse range of cultural activities, most of which are seemingly attended by Ed Husic, if his tweets are anything to go by.
This area of cultural diversity and supporting community cultural projects is far too piecemeal in Western Sydney, one of the problems being that a number of culture funding bodies situated in the inner city, requiring organisations like community theatre groups, orchestras and musical theatre societies to rely on local councils. The result is that they often end up with nothing, like the theatre group with which I was involved, the Liverpool Performing Arts Ensemble. As a result, the group just scraped by when we performed Cosi, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Don’s Party together. Local Liverpool City Councillors were always invited to performances and never showed. Same went for local newspaper reporters. This problem of local cultural organisations struggling to survive is compounded when some venues in the west, such as the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, charge considerable rents as well as running the bar, which reduces the ability for groups to recoup costs. These are small concerns for many, but shows that governments over the years haven’t really worked hard to make sure Western Sydney culture is as diverse as it could be.
Another relatively forgotten group in Western Sydney are the homosexual community. For many years in the West, homosexuality was mostly considered to be shameful and something to hide. Being openly gay, walking down Main St in Blacktown or Queen St in Campbelltown is not something often seen. Indeed, when I took my Western Sydney high school students for excursions into the city that took us past Oxford St, the boys in particular would be amazed and a bit horrified at the sight of men holding hands. Showing television or film texts that contained homosexual themes had the same impact. This is why it was necessary for homosexual residents of the West to go to secret warehouses in order to dance and commune. My best friend, as he was discovering the truth about his sexuality, went to such places and took me along a couple of times. The atmosphere was great – and frankly more welcoming and less threatening than that experienced at a beer barn like The Mean Fiddler or at Panthers – but it struck me at the time that it was sad that this hiding was necessary. As my friend pointed out, also, some of the bigger homophobes in the region liked visiting various secluded spots in the area for covert homosexual activity. As I covered in this post, for some in the community, the West is still stuck in that 1980s / 1990s mindset that likes to pretend homosexuality doesn’t exist and that there are still teenagers and young adults scared to come out to their friends and family. Organisations such as Twenty10 are needed in the region, due to the misunderstanding and ignorance that is still present amongst many. There is still work to be done in order to address Western Sydney society’s attitude to homosexuality – maybe there needs to be a Parramatta or Penrith Mardi Gras, in order to give the community a voice and public acceptance. At the very least, it would be another chance for a party. I suspect, though, that such an event would be closer in spirit to the original Mardi Gras in the late 1970s.
What we see the most attention paid to by politicians and commentators, however, are clubs. Licenced clubs with their poker machines and rugby league clubs with their stadiums and poker machines. The clubs that loom largest are Rooty Hill RSL (complete with hotel, ten pin bowling and laser zone) and Panthers (World of Entertainment), because of their sheer size and their hundreds of poker machines – as well as the meagre amount clubs like Panthers gives back to the community. Following close behind are the two large Catholic Clubs at Campbelltown and Liverpool (I was a voting member of Liverpool for a number of years while I worked nearby). These clubs are less Jesus, more like the money lenders in the temple. They were also some of the loudest opponents of the Wilkie Pre-commitment Reforms – I remember Panthers having a screen in its foyer flashing up pictures of junior rugby league players, followed by slogans saying that the reforms would be threatening junior league funding. This was political lobbying at its lowest and most primal – and the Gillard government caved in to the pressure, causing them to turn to Peter Slipper as a way out. And we all know what happened next.
The clubs – both large and small – have a large hold over the cultural lives of those who live in Western Sydney. They are considered important social hubs, because they provide subsidised food, drink, gaming zones for the kids (yes, to get to the one in Panthers, one has to see the adult gaming machines), nightclubs, performances – as well as safe environment for families (until a certain time of the day). The Mean Fiddler, that giant overgrown pub in Rouse Hill, is another venue is great for families and other members of the community (again, until a certain time of the day, when it transforms into something far less pleasant). Despite the revenue it would be making from its patrons from food and drink sales, it also has a vast “VIP Lounge”. This makes the clubs and pubs in NSW different to, for example, many Victorian gambling venues, which don’t provide anywhere approaching the level of amenity provided by the clubs. There are also, in many smaller towns, the local RSL or Bowling Club, providing cheap food and drink and a place to catch up with friends. It is nearly impossible to avoid a poker machine venue in Western Sydney. Gambling as a concept, too, is hard to avoid, with many gripped with the idea of making money from gambling, so they can get something new, pay some more off their house, get ahead of the rest. It’s a false dream created by an aspirational desire.
It was of little surprise therefore that the Western Sydney MPs and Gillard faltered on supporting mandatory pre-commitment, considering that the number of poker machines in NSW rose by nearly 25,000 during the State Labor years – from 1995 to 2011 – the number being 97,000 when the O’Farrell Government arrived. They were an enormous cash cow for the state government – and when the treasurer Michael Egan tried to milk it some more in 2003, the clubs squealed in response. They pulled the same “we pay for kids’ sport” act then as well. Despite the fact the issue has disappeared from the books, the memory of the “a Government having to pander to One Man in Tasmania” lingers in the memory for many in the west, even though there are those in the community – especially those immediately affected by problem gambling – who are still bitterly disappointed in the squibbing by the Government on this issue.
The other type of clubs that attract political and media attention are the big rugby league clubs in the West – especially Wests Tigers, Parramatta and Penrith (and Canterbury is often included in these discussions). At each Federal Election in the past, they have become pork barrelling battlegrounds – as I cover in this post. The grounds that are built are adequate for the crowds that most rugby league games attract – there is hardly a need for more money to be spent on stadiathat won’t be utilised. They are also clubs that draw upon the goodwill of their communities to support them, even though they also use them to an extent. The Wests Tigers, for example, almost neglects their Campbelltown fans with 3 home games each year – and Penrith Panthers could easily fund junior rugby league competitions without worrying about poker machine revenue. After all, the AFL is spending considerable amounts of non-gambling money on a suburban AFL competition, both on Sundays and in various inter-school competitions. These issues, however, are often no-go areas for governments of every hue – forcing clubs to cut poker machine revenue or cope with an un-renovated stadium they have takes a brave politician – though these noises from the NSW Government are encouraging.
Also encouraging is the explosion of colour and light known as the West Sydney Wanderers – a club freed from negative baggage of past NSL team history, but is managing to draw upon the decades of love owned about the game of soccer by a diversity of cultural groups. These groups had to endure “wog ball” taunts from league fans for many years, even though the taunts quickly died away when Western Sydney players like Harry Kewell went to England and oodles of fame and cash. The club’s first season on field success has been as pleasing as it has been surprising. The club would have been a crowd success even if it didn’t go so well in its first season – it’s a neat fit for the region. If there is ever a push for a new rectangular stadium for Western Sydney, it will be the Wanderers who will lead that push – they would be more likely to get the crowds to justify its construction. The AFL, on the other hand, is starting from a much lower base of support with its GWS Giants concept, but is offering an interesting alternative. Its popularity may well hang on the children of their future, with many parents preferring the lower impact nature of the game when compared to league. As any regular reader of my blog will tell you, I am continuing to watch its development with great interest.
Ultimately, however, culture in Western Sydney still remains an under-appreciated and not often discussed issue. It is more than just clubs and V8s in Western Sydney and it would be pleasant at some stage if a newspaper like the Sydney Morning Herald had a regular Western Sydney cultural reporter, reviewing restaurants, going to performances and writing about them not as curiosities, but as good quality shows that the community of Western Sydney can enjoy and deserve. I suspect, however, that this dream is more fanciful than the others I have proposed this week.