South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon announced plans on Sunday to launch a new political party called NXT (short for Nick Xenophon Team), targeting the “sensible centre”. With renewed interest in minor parties, Xenophon’s move has attracted a lot of media attention. But South Australians know he has tried this before — and the results were not always successful.
Xenophon is popular in his home state, but it is unclear how well his home ground support translates across the country.
The senator’s parliamentary career started in 1997 when he ran as an independent candidate for the South Australian upper house on an anti-pokies platform. He received 2.9% of the vote at that election and was elected off the back of a collection of minor party preferences (using the same methods he now lambasts).
In 2006 he was re-elected with 20.5% of the vote, enough to also elect his running mate Ann Bressington. But his second term had barely begun when he announced his candidacy for the Senate in the 2007 federal election.
That sparked a public spat between Bressington and Xenophon, with the former calling him a chameleon and an illusionist. It didn’t do much to dent his popularity though, and he was easily elected to a federal seat in 2007 and then re-elected in 2013 with an incredible 1.8 quotas (had he received significant preferences from other parties his running mate would have been elected too).
Xenophon is setting up to vet and train future candidates to avoid issues like that with Bressington. He says that back in 2006 “it was ad hoc, there was no real process. [This time] there is a very slow methodical deliberate process to meet with candidates and to have a candidate forum.”
Xenophon is looking for candidates from the political centre and wants to source funds to have all his candidates do training before running for office.
The obvious comparison for a centrist party trying to reduce the “toxic partisan disconnect” is the Democrats, but Xenophon rejects the link. He claims “the dynamics of politics are quite different to when the Democrats were established”.
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Where the Democrats acted as a watchdog, Xenophon says he’d “like to do more in terms of initiating legislation”. In particular, he still wants action on problem gambling, the thing that got him into politics in the first place.
When asked if Stirling Griff, his running mate in 2013 who narrowly missed out on a Senate seat, would be a candidate in a future election, Xenophon laughed. “He hasn’t said no yet!”
“I’m hoping that Stirling will, I think he’d be an outstanding senator.”
But getting Stirling — or anyone else — elected on the basis of Xenophon’s own popularity could be tricky. Voters like him, but other politicians are a different story. University of Adelaide professor Clem Macintyre says Xenophon has a lot of respect in South Australia. “[Voters] regard him as a voice of honesty and integrity in a political environment where there is decreasing faith in the established political parties.”
“He also established a reputation as a responsible crossbencher who assessed legislation on its merit.”
But since his first re-election campaign Xenophon hasn’t had the benefit of preferences from other parties at all, with most parties burying him very low in their group voting tickets. Some don’t preference him because of how attractive he is to voters and how much he threatens them in the upper house. Many just plain don’t like him.
Xenophon acknowledges the challenge: “I have to aim to get a full quota, which is a big ask.” But he’s optimistic, saying, “This is the most fluid Australian politics has been in years. The tribal loyalty that people have felt for parties is disintegrating.”
The party is “running not so much on a shoestring as a dental floss budget”, but more than 120 people have already expressed an interest in becoming candidates.
Although he is highly popular in South Australia, Xenophon’s support elsewhere is untested. Macintyre says that Xenophon has extended his reputation nationally as a senator. “He has played a key role in helping the very discordant crossbench put some coherence into their arguments and positioning.”
“Much will depend on the quality of the candidates he chooses. If he can find local people with high regard then I imagine he could win a couple of Senate seats. His task is to sort out the people with integrity from the people that are there to gather the limelight.”