The next time Australia goes to the polls, it will be with a new Senate voting system, whereby voters will be able to control where their preferences go without having to number every single candidate on the ballot paper. The micro-parties and independents hate it — bar one, popular South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon.

The new 25-member Nick Xenophon Team is fielding candidates across the country. Xenophon is in favour of the voting reform measures — he has not relied on preferences in years.

In South Australia, Xenophon’s polling is north of 20%, and independent observers told Crikey they’ve no doubt Xenophon will get at least another senator, if not two. In a double-dissolution election, with Xenophon himself on the ticket, NXT could do even better. History suggests South Australian voters are more than willing to vote in candidates because Xenophon has endorsed them as part of a ticket — the schtick has worked before at a state level (and today’s Essential polling in Crikey on state governments shows support for the NXT in SA and the eastern states).

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Crikey spoke to several NXT candidates who are optimistic about their odds, citing the ongoing frustrations of the Australian public with the major parties and a desire for a genuinely centrist party in Australian politics. But Xenophon isn’t one to spruik. Asked how he thinks the party will do, he says he just doesn’t know.

Historically, preference flows, particularly from the major parties, have not favoured Xenophon. In the 2013 election, for example, he secured a 24.9% primary vote, putting him ahead of the Labor party with a quota of 1.7. But that wasn’t enough to get his running mate, Stirling Griff, up as well. The Greens and Labor party both preferenced against Xenophon in favour of Family First (getting Bob Day elected). But this time, Xenophon has a bargaining chip, says University of Adelaide politics professor Clement Macintyre: he’s also running candidates in the lower house.

“In seats like Sturt, Adelaide, Boothby, Hindmarsh, Makin, Mayo and Kingston, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a primary vote of 15%-20% for the NXT candidate,” Macintyre said. While that makes it unlikely the candidates will be elected, it does mean their preferences will likely decide who does.

“Xenophon could play a very influential role in how the seats fall in South Australia, particularly in metropolitan areas, even though his own candidate are unlikely to get over the line,” Macintyre said. But there’s another layer of complexity to this calculus added by the new voting system, Macintyre adds. Who knows how preferences will flow more broadly — and what percentage will be extinguished — once voters can more easily direct them.

Xenophon himself brushes off the suggestion the major parties might play nicer this time. “I have a lot of time for Clem, but I think he’s being uncharacteristically optimistic,” he said. “In SA, I’m seen as a threat to the duopoly.”

And he’s not holding out on support from any other minor party. “I think microparties won’t go anywhere near preferencing us,” he said.

As for his prospects apart from preferences, resourcing is an issue. Xenophon quips that last night he held a $15-a-head fundraiser — barely enough to cover the drinks and nibbles. “We’re running not on a shoestring budget, but a dental floss budget,” he said. “We’re relying on social media and grassroots campaigning. I do find people often come out of the woodwork during election campaigns, but our big thing is going to be getting volunteers at polling booths.”

Griff, Xenophon’s running mate in 2013, is now NXT’s campaign director and lead SA senate candidate (provided it’s a normal election and Xenophon isn’t also on the ticket, as he would be in a double dissolution). He refers Crikey to commentary and publicly available polling that suggests the party could get three or four seats in South Australia (three in the Senate), and another one or two in the eastern states.

“We haven’t undertaken any polling of our own in eastern states at all,” Griff said. “What we do know is we have some fantastic candidates, well and truly committed to the cause. In the end it’ll come down to them. And how they promote themselves and their states.”

NXT’s electoral prospects are murkiest outside South Australia. In January, ABC polling wonk Antony Green was quoted saying, given Xenophon’s name recognition, the party could poll as well as 10-12% in the eastern states. This is the highest estimate Crikey has read for the party’s potential polling. Even with this high figure, it isn’t enough for the party to win a Senate seat in its own right in a normal election (though it would be in a double dissolution, which Xenophon doesn’t believe will come to pass). Morgan has begun to poll for NXT and put it at 4% nationally (down from 5%) in its most recent poll. Crikey has heard of polling putting the party at between 5-8% in the eastern states.

Crikey‘s own psephologist William Bowe (aka Poll Bludger) says it’s remarkable that Morgan has found NXT doing almost as well as the Palmer United Party in 2013, “without any help from a Palmer-style mass advertising campaign”.

“Clearly the electorate is still receptive to charismatic outsiders, and Palmer’s effective demise means there’s a gap in the market that he might well be able to exploit. If he’s indeed looking at around 5% outside South Australia, it’s entirely possible that would be enough to win him Senate seats at a double dissolution. Candidates will no longer need the full 7.7% quota to win the last seat, since optional preferential voting will cause votes to drop out of the count. Furthermore, below-the-line Senate votes in South Australia from 2013 showed that Xenophon does extremely well on preferences when voters do actually make up their own minds as to where they should go.”

Xenophon isn’t counting his chickens just yet.

“The polling is just so volatile,” he said. “It all just depends on so many things.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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