Nick Xenophon with NXT Candidate for Kingston Damian Carey

On current polling, it’s very likely another member of the Nick Xenophon Team will join the party’s namesake on the Senate crossbenches. In the case of a double dissolution, the party would likely do even better. Independent observers say it’s possible we could see a new voting bloc of three or four NXT senators in our Parliament by the end of the year — and Xenophon has employed a yearlong process complete with psychometric testing to make sure he has found the right people.

So who are the candidates likely to ride into Parliament on Xenophon’s coattails, and how did he find them?

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Xenophon has gathered like-minded candidates on joint tickets before, and it hasn’t always worked out. In 2006, he ran with Ann Bressington for South Australian Parliament. His decision to then run for the Senate at the 2007 election sparked a public spat with Bressington, who called him an “illusionist” and a “chameleon”, amid other robust criticism. Xenophon expressed shock and surprise at her attack. He and campaign manager (and SA lead Senate candidate Stirling Griff) have been extra careful with how NXT’s candidates were chosen this time.

Successful candidates tell Crikey getting on the ticket was the result of an intense year-long process that included psychometric tests to gauge their suitability.

Xenophon put out the call for candidates in the middle of last year. There were 450 applicants in the first three weeks, who filled out an extensive application form.

“We needed to do this,” Griff told Crikey. “We didn’t have the advantage a lot of parties have in having people who’ve gone up through system over many years. And we didn’t want that anyway — we wanted people with life experiences who were in touch with their communities. So the process was quite extensive and involved. There were interviews, background checking, police checking. We made them fill out various statutory declarations about things, such as the last time they did their tax return, whether they’d ever been accused of a crime and the like. We needed as much information as we could get.”

Xenophon and Griff then chose 12 to 20 people in each state. These people became part of what the party called its state-based election advisory committees.

Candidates were given various tasks to complete, then asked to pitch their candidacy. Then more interviews.

“We’ve had a NXT conference where we all met each other,” said lead NSW senate candidate Glen Frost. “[But] each state has its own electoral advisory committee. At an operational level that’s how we run things — it’s a state-based system.”

At state-level meetings last year attended by Xenophon and Griff, all candidates gave speeches about why they thought they should be preselected, and what they would do if they were. Everyone in the room then voted. The winners of the vote were recommended to the party’s SA-based leadership for the Senate and lower-house seats the party was contesting, and given the psychometric tests.

The process, says Victorian lead Senate candidate Naomi Halpern, was “drawn out”, lasting almost a year. “But the good thing about that was, as a committee, people who saw that process through were very strong and very committed. We now know each other very well. We know each other’s skills and strengths. I think it was also really important for Nick [Xenophon] to be sure of the people who were putting themselves forward — that they would fit in with the particular policies and his way of thinking and approaching politics.”

So who got through the gauntlet? For the most part, University of Adelaide politics processor Clem McIntyre says, they’re not high-profile figures looking to enter or re-enter politics.

“They’re local figures,” he said. “Most voters would be hard-pressed to tell you who the candidates are.

“The quite clear tactic is that Nick Xenophon is going to be front and centre. He’s the face of the party. I think the other candidates are quite content to let him do the talking, and hope that the name Nick Xenophon is enough to resonate with voters.” (Though the Xenophon name is undoubtedly why the party is polling well, the man himself says he hates it. He says the party will change its name after the next election but didn’t have the cash to rebrand this time: “It’s not about me, it’s about the political centre,” he told Crikey.)

In South Australia, where NXT is most likely to pick up one or two Senate seats, the man with the golden ticket (as InDaily put it) is Griff, who ran with Xenophon at the last election but just missed out, and is at the top of the ticket this time (that is assuming there is not a double dissolution election and Xenophon does not have to recontest his own seat). Because Xenophon is flat out with parliamentary duties, Griff is the man who’s been running the NXT campaign. He’s known Xenophon for more than 15 years. Xenophon’s position on penalty rates (the subject of  a Labor campaign against him) has been put down to Griff’s influence — he’s spent most of his life as a retailer and retail analyst. Following Griff on the ticket in SA, where NXT is polling at almost a quarter of the vote, is Skye Kakoschke-Moore, a veteran Xenophon policy adviser who grew up in the Middle East.

It’s possible NXT will also secure lower-house seats in South Australia, if it manages to poll above the Labor Party (a difficult but not impossible proposition — it did for the SA Senate vote at the last election). NXT is running candidates in seven of them.

Because of NXT’s polling in South Australia, McIntyre says the candidates will come under intense scrutiny. The candidate for Kingston, self-employed acupuncture and Chinese medicine and ­practitioner Damian Carey, has already attracted attention in The Australian for his anti-vaccination views.

The candidate for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, used to work for Jamie Briggs — now she’s running against him. She’s also come under fire from the SA Liberals for speaking at a gathering of the Food Producers Land Owners Action Group, a body whose founder has supported Pauline Hanson. Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham jumped on this to accuse Sharkie of courting the “Hanson vote”, but Sharkie responded by saying she’d been unaware of any such links between the group and Pauline Hanson, dismissing suggestions she was courting the far right as “utterly ridiculous”.

Daniel Kirk, running for NXT in Hindmarsh, is a former SANFL footballer (for West Torrens). Karen Hockley, running in Boothby, is a local councillor. Other candidates are Matthew Wright (in Sturt), Joe Hill (in Adelaide) and Michael Slattery (in Port Adelaide). Meanwhile former Democrats candidate Craig Bossie, who was running in Makin, has withdrawn due to an “unexpected health issue”.

Interstate, NXT has a shot for the Senate, particularly in the event of a double dissolution, in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

In Victoria, small businesswoman Naomi Halpern met Xenophon after campaigning on financial misconduct. She got involved in politics after being stung by a financial planner. She, along with other victims at a creditors’ meeting, started an action group, and in 2014 went up to Canberra to lobby various politicians. She met Xenophon and says he impressed her — when the opportunity came to join his party she jumped on board. She already has a media profile, having campaigned on financial regulation for some years.

New South Wales’ lead Senate candidate, PR and government relations expert Glen Frost, met Xenophon through a conference company he used to run. He says advocating for small business is what he’s most keen to do. Frost is known in media circles as the founder of PR newsletter the PR Report, which he sold last year.

Queensland’s lead Senate candidate, Suzanne Grant, is interesting partly because of her job — she’s an academic at the University of Queensland. In an interview with InDaily last year, Griff said the party wasn’t keen on academics. He told Crikey last week he didn’t mean no candidates from universities at all, just that the party was keen on people with a mix of life experiences. Grant got the endorsement. Before completing her PhD last year, Grant was a consultant, first with Deloitte and then through her own business.

This is part two of a series on the Nick Xenophon Team. Read part one here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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