Why Australia's suburban woman has turned against 'Bush clone' John Howard
The seat of Parramatta lies at the geographical heart of Sydney, and is a microcosm of urban Australia. It is ethnically mixed, with nearly half of its residents born overseas, and comprises relatively wealthy suburbs as well as large public housing estates. Not surprisingly, it is one of the country's most marginal constituencies.
Held by the conservative Liberal Party for 30 years, it was seized by Labor in 1977 and since then has changed hands regularly. Going into today's general election, it had a Labor MP but a nominal Liberal majority, as a result of boundary changes.
Parramatta was the kind of seat Labor needed to retain – or, technically, win – for the party to win government and oust John Howard after 11 years. And Yolinda Marsden is the kind of voter who may have sealed Mr Howard's fate.
A lifelong Liberal supporter, Ms Marsden declared yesterday that her love affair with the Prime Minister was over. "He's been there too long, and he's a little George Bush clone," she said, loading her car with groceries outside a shopping centre in the well-to-do suburb of Kings Langley. "George Bush shouldn't have gone into Iraq, and John Howard shouldn't have followed him in. He wants us to be part of the US. But we're not the 51st State."
Ms Marsden was equally scathing, though, about Mr Howard's Labor challenger, Kevin Rudd. "I don't trust him and I don't like his policies," she said. "Neither of the major parties are tackling the real issues that concern me, like climate change and our water shortage in Australia. I'll probably end up voting for one of the minor parties."
With pollsters and pundits predicting that the election would return the first new Labor government for 14 years, many voters remained unsure what Mr Rudd – a former diplomat with no ministerial experience and just one year as party leader – stood for.
That uncertainty was reinforced by an interview published in The Australian newspaper, in which Mr Rudd unexpectedly ditched his support for a referendum to incorporate a statement of reconciliation with Aboriginal people into the constitution. The move placed Mr Howard in the unusual position of being more progressive than Labor on Aboriginal issues.
Mr Rudd also pledged to pursue the Howard government's tough line on "illegal" asylum-seekers, by using the navy to turn back boats carrying would-be refugees before they enter Australian waters.
Last-minute policy pronouncements aside, the result was expected to come down to hard figures. Could Labor win 16 seats more than in 2004? If not, Mr Howard would scrape back into power for a fifth term – although he has pledged to step aside for his deputy, Peter Costello, the long-time Treasurer, within 18 months if re-elected.
While most opinion polls had forecast a comfortable victory for Mr Rudd, two of the final polls released yesterday suggested a much tighter finish. A Galaxy poll put Labor support at 52 per cent and support for Mr Howard's Liberal-National Coalition at 48 per cent – which could translate into Labor falling just short of a majority of seats. A Newspoll survey delivered identical figures.
Conscious that the outcome would be decided in a handful of seats, Mr Howard and Mr Rudd spent the last day of the campaign touring marginal electorates in Queensland.
In Parramatta, support for Labor and the Liberals appeared to be split. "We're 50-50 in Parramatta, always have been," said Julie Owens, the Labor MP fighting for re-election. I think it's marginal because it's actually Australia. Australia votes 50-50, and we're incredibly representative of the country."
Ms Owens said many people were suffering as a result of reforms that made it easier to sack workers. A flurry of interest rate rises was also biting, with the number of home repossessions in one low-income suburb, Blacktown, doubling within a year. "A lot of families in Parramatta are really close to the edge," she said.
The Liberal candidate, Colin Robinson, disagreed that voters were preoccupied by national issues. "It's cancelled bus services and footpaths." But he agreed the result in Parramatta would be a cliffhanger. In Kings Langley, several locals said they would remain loyal to Mr Howard. "He cares about Australia and the Australian people," said Kerry Clements, 47. "I used to be a Labor voter, but I like the good Mr Howard's done for the country. He's a man of strong character, true to his word."
Mr Rudd got a boost yesterday when newspapers formerly supportive of Mr Howard endorsed him, including the Rupert Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph and Australian.