President Barack Obama’s convincing victory this month reinforced the truism that, in the United States, what matters is the support received by the Democrats and the Republicans in the swing states. It’s the same in Australia, except that the focus is on marginal seats.

The early indications are that next year’s election will be decided in western Sydney, northern NSW, Queensland and, perhaps, Tasmania. Julia Gillard and Labor seem to be holding up relatively well in Victoria and South Australia while the Coalition remains dominant in Western Australia.

In recent weeks the Herald’s Phillip Coorey and The Australian’s Peter Van Onselen have reported internal Labor polling for western Sydney. If this research is correct, and if political attitudes do not change significantly over the next year, then Labor’s prospects do not look good for the 2013 election.

Last month, Richard Aedy, who presents The Media Report on Radio National, commented on the fact that the news agenda sometimes seems very narrow. As a case study, he mentioned that ”seemingly every week” the issues of asylum seekers and gay marriage are discussed on the ABC Q&A program.

The Q&A audience invariably reflects prevailing inner-city values – as does the public broadcaster itself. This is the case whether the program is filmed in the ABC’s Sydney studio in Ultimo or in other capital cities. Many inner-city types – Labor, Greens and Liberal voters alike – are very sympathetic to asylum seekers and advocate same-sex marriage. Such views are not necessarily shared in the suburbs and regional centres of Australia. And this is Labor’s core problem – made worse by the agreement entered into after the 2010 election between Labor and the Greens.

Take western Sydney, for example. The inner-city types who adopt the laudable approach of sympathising with asylum seekers mostly do not live among them. Many asylum seekers who become accepted as refugees live in western Sydney. Here they compete with less well-off Australians for access to public housing and preferred medical care and education facilities. They also take up slots in Australian refugee and humanitarian intake quotas.

Labor’s policy, announced in 2007 by Kevin Rudd and supported by the present Prime Minister, to abandon the Howard government’s successful hardline approach to people smugglers has been badly received in western Sydney. This primarily explains the current haste to dismantle the policy which Labor took to the 2007 election.

The former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser received an extremely soft interview on ABC 702 Mornings with Linda Mottram program yesterday. Present or current Liberals who criticise the Coalition invariably are well-received by ABC presenters. This is not surprising since the ABC still does not have one conservative presenter, producer or editor on any of its prominent radio, TV or online outlets.

In the interview with Mottram, Fraser said he didn’t believe there was

any hope of getting to a ”sensible, sane, humane policy on asylum seekers”. But he overlooked one central fact. The total number of unauthorised boat arrivals in the seven-year term of the Fraser government was 2059. Currently, about 2000 asylum seekers are arriving each month.

The fact is that the Fraser government never experienced an unauthorised asylum seeker problem – unlike the Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments.

Moreover, large numbers of Australians living in the suburbs and regional centres want the government they elect to control Australia’s borders. This is why the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s unequivocal message on border protection has been electorally popular in western Sydney.

Labor’s problems in western Sydney do not turn on the handling of asylum of seekers alone. Residents in this area are also experiencing rising energy costs – at least partly due to the carbon tax and the increased cost of green energy. There are problems of inadequate infrastructure and unemployment.

Then there is the other half of the Q&A obsession. Namely, same-sex marriage. Suburban and regional Australia is very much a socially conservative place. This is especially the case with migrants – particularly
those of Christian, Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. To the extent to which Labor has been identified with the Greens’ radical social agenda, it has damaged the Gillard government.

Labor’s policy difficulties in western Sydney take place within the context of the current headings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption into the activities of the recent state Labor governments. The allegations against former left faction leader Ian Macdonald and former right faction leader Eddie Obeid, both of whom are former state Labor ministers, raise deeply disturbing questions about the NSW Labor Party.

Gillard and her colleagues may yet adopt policies to win back support in western Sydney. Spin alone will not do. Abbott appears to have greater appeal in suburban and regional Australia than he does in the cities. That’s why nationwide approval ratings do not matter much. It’s the suburbs and towns that matter.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.