Nick Xenophon is straddling a fine line at this election.

He is pushing the eye-catching stunts that have always riled his major party opponents while revving up the media, and at the same time promoting his newly formed “Team” as a genuine third force for serious reform.

He is chiming in on the big issues of the day, while pushing local issues to woo voters in winnable seats like Boothby, where he yesterday spruiked a big-spending infrastructure solution to a notorious traffic bottleneck.

And, perhaps, toughest of all, he is well aware that he has the major parties spooked — and yet he is still determined to paint himself as the underdog.

And he’s doing it in typical Xenophon style.

“We’re not so much the underdog as the under-chihuahua,” he laughed at a media conference wherein he and his Boothby candidate Karen Hockley were surrounded by picture-friendly pooches.

“These are the sorts of local issues that matter to people,” said Xenophon, even while the local mayor Glenn Spear — who welcomed the attention without endorsing the party — emphasised funding a solution was chiefly a state government concern.

But Xenophon maintains “Boothby has been off the radar for a long time” and voters’ best hope of prising government cash for projects is making it “marginal or better still non-major party”.

The inner-southern suburban seat is, in some ways, Xenophon’s best hope, given the retirement of long-time incumbent Andrew Southcott means the Liberals lose their “home-ground advantage”.

It’s being contested by former Advertiser columnist Nicolle Flint for the Liberals and Mitcham councillor Mark Ward for Labor.

“There are a number of ‘best hopes’,” Xenophon said of the suggestion.

“Karen [also a Mitcham councillor] is well-known, and it’s a much more level playing field because there isn’t an incumbent — but in one or two seats in SA being an incumbent may not be much of an advantage.”

While he maintains his underdog status — “a chihuahua’s better than a poodle” — he also accuses both major parties of “running scared” because their “cosy duopoly is under threat for the first time”.

His Senate vote in 2013 was 24.9%, and he argues “if those percentages were replicated in the lower house it means the major parties are in trouble”.

That doesn’t sit well alongside his “under-chihuahua” mantle in a campaign he says is run on a shoestring budget aided by a concerted social media presence, but neither does it sit well with the major parties, which targeted Xenophon again yesterday with a story in The Advertiser about the alleged predatory behaviour of a psychiatrist who ran with Xenophon at the 1997 state election.

Addressing his alleged “history of poor choices” in selecting candidates, Xenophon points to both current MLC John Darley “who’s been in SA Parliament for [the] best part of a decade”, and the fact his current crop of aspirants went through a thorough vetting process of “character checks, background checks and police checks”.

“If the major parties want to start throwing stones I’d look in their own backyard at some of the candidates they’ve selected over the years,” he said.

“What keeps me awake at night is not the candidates I’m running, it’s losing tens of thousands of jobs in SA with the closure of Holden.”

“Of course it’s difficult [to keep a rein on candidates], but it’s a good thing, because we can do more.”

He said having MPs on the crossbenches would facilitate better outcomes, adding: “I’m criticised for not doing enough on poker machines — it’s not for want of trying.”

But the challenge of asserting a party discipline — and adhering to the party script — was evident even yesterday, with Hockley dubbing the impact of Sunday penalty rates a “disaster”, and insisting that while “certainly I value Nick’s opinion and judgement and guidance and character … I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t someone who was determined and valued community input”.

“People tell me they feel they have no voice — I’ll be the person who will give the community here a voice,” she said.

She added her own voice to the controversy over penalty rates, which targeted Xenophon in the dying days of the last campaign.

“I think we need to look for an independent umpire to make a final decision,” she said, before arguing that local businesses had told her it was untenable to pay penalty rates on Sundays and public holidays.

She said one local business didn’t open at Easter “simply because turnover wouldn’t cover wages”.

“I think that’s a disaster,” said Hockley. “What they’re telling me is they can’t afford to open on Sundays and public holidays.”

She said the Xenophon Team was “right in the middle” of the ideological spectrum, “and I see myself right in the middle of that”.

Xenophon seems chastened by the penalty rates debate, saying yesterday: “I think I made a mistake in the way I pushed for penalty rates [to be overhauled] … but it was motivated by concern for young people who have lost their jobs on Sundays.”

Xenophon has previously argued double pay on Sundays was “killing small business” and should only apply for employees who worked more than 38 hours in seven days or more than 10 hours in a day.

His default line now is that the Fair Work Commission should remain the independent umpire.

“The best way is to let the umpire do it — let’s not interfere with the umpire,” he said. “It’s a mistake to let politicians interfere with the independent umpire.”

*This article was originally published at InDaily

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey