Turnbull and Shorten have reason to fear the depth of discontent

Crawling west in Sydney along motorways and tunnels crammed with bellowing trucks, through suburbs where the most modest houses carry price tags of more than $1 million, it wasn’t difficult to predict frustration lay behind front doors.

We expected something similar in suburban Melbourne, the nation’s second-largest but fastest-growing city, with fast-rising house prices and clogged roads, too.

Scott Morrison’s housing affordability promise

Treasurer Scott Morrison says he will bring forward a new “super savers” scheme, to help first home buyers and those struggling to pay their rent. Vision courtesy ABC News

But it was worse than frustration, our research found: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have reason to fear the depth of discontent that has taken root in both suburban Sydney and Melbourne.

The young and the middle-aged, former Liberal voters and former Labor supporters, residents of both big cities, revealed that despite their differences, they were united at core: they believed government was failing them.

And they didn’t hold out hope that the current political opposition was bold or different enough to do anything about it.

Many believed that Liberal and Labor agendas were almost identical.

“Out of touch” was the single most-used term about Australia’s current leaders.

“Never had to live on the sort of money we’ve got to get by on”, “they don’t know how we live”, “they all just fight and when they get in government, before you know it, they’re changing leaders”, “the opposition just bloody opposes everything for the sake of it”, “they’re supposed to be working for us, but they’re out for themselves”.

These are the themes about Australia’s established politicians that gathered approving nods as small groups of the politically adrift gathered in Australia’s two biggest cities last week to talk politics.

Yet even though there was broad agreement that Mr Turnbull was a disappointment and hamstrung by sections of his party, and that Mr Shorten was not impressive, there was no thirst for further changes in leadership.

Focus groups: gatherings of eight voters at a time sitting around a dinner table, expressing their views on a broad range of topics related to the way their everyday lives intersect with politics, a polling company moderator gently steering the discussion.

We sit in a darkened room peering at proceedings through a one-way mirror, listening to the “dinner party” voices piped through a TV sound system.

There were the over 45s in Sydney who voted Liberal last time and are now having second thoughts, the over 45s in Melbourne who voted Labor but are feeling uncertain about the next election, the under 45s – most of them in their 20s and early 30s – in Sydney who aren’t so sure about their last vote for Labor and their young peers in Melbourne who were Liberal until now.

The first two of these sessions were in Parramatta, the demographic heart of the NSW capital from which spread the diverse western suburbs and electorates that  will be crucial to next year’s federal election result.

John Howard found his battlers and his aspirationals out there, Kevin Rudd wrested them back, Julia Gillard became so desperate to hold them she camped out in the west’s Rooty Hill for a week – to no avail – and Tony Abbott swept them up. Now Turnbull and Shorten and their MPs are locked in battle for the hearts and minds of the west, all to the  soundtrack of opinionated radio shock jocks such as Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.

Having battled our way from Sydney Airport to Parramatta – a 30-kilometre trip that took an hour and a quarter mid-afternoon – we were to discover that the Sydney sessions would prove the angriest by a long stretch. Grid-locked traffic got strong play – one woman spoke eloquently of the pain of paying $120 a day for childcare, only for it to be made worse by constantly battling traffic on the daily run.

But every Sydney participant – uncertain Liberal, unsure Labor, younger and older – was hopping mad about housing affordability, or more specifically, the lack of it.

Older participants worried that their children might never be able to purchase a home (“My daughter won’t get her own house until I die and she’s gets our place,” said one father). Younger Sydneysiders told of despair (a young woman said she worked 70 hours a week at two jobs to try to save a deposit, only to find herself taxed in higher and higher brackets) while others related desperate measures. A young woman, certain she could never afford her own home, said she was renovating part of her mother’s house for her own use.

Both young and older, ex-Liberal and ex-Labor, blamed foreign investors for driving up prices. “I live in a ghetto,” an English migrant said. “Wentworthville – I feel like I’m living in Mumbai.” (She offered a “no offence” to the man, an immigrant from the Subcontinent, sitting next to her).

“Every time an auction comes up, it doesn’t even get to auction – it’s gone to an overseas buyer first.”

Housing affordability was a common theme in Melbourne, too, but was muted compared with the Sydney sessions. Melbourne participants, who broadened their concerns to include homelessness, global warming, border protection and marriage equality (which they mainly wanted solved quickly), focused on the personalities leading the parties.

The kindest comment about Turnbull and Shorten came from a former Labor voter from Caulfield.

“They’re uninspiring,” he said. “We were talking the other day about great prime ministers – well, we haven’t had one of them for a while. In fairness, it seems a lot harder to get anything done. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on the leaders.”

Follow us on Facebook