Two things today illustrate why Nick Xenophon will likely be the biggest winner on July 2 regardless of who is Prime Minister thereafter.
One, The Australian has ramped up its campaign against him, running multiple stories attacking him personally and on policy. The other is that Malcolm Turnbull, who had to sack Jamie Briggs at the end of 2015, campaigned for Briggs this morning in what is traditionally a safe Liberal seat, Mayo.
The threat in Mayo is not Labor, but the NXT candidate Rebekha Sharkie. This morning Turnbull’s office issued a media release announcing “$3.75 million investment for Mount Barker Regional Sports Hub”. “Member for Mayo, Jamie Briggs and the Turnbull Coalition Government is delivering for Mayo,” the media release stated, ungrammatically but earnestly. That’s porkbarrelling in what should be a safe seat is a sign of naked political terror — with a touch of irony, given Sharkie is a former Briggs staffer.
The Oz is anxious not to be caught out like it was with Clive Palmer, who emerged from the 2013 election with serious Senate power, before the national broadsheet, which had previously cheered him, decided he needed to be taken down a notch or three. It has been scouring for dirt on Xenophon, and got a dump from Labor that it ran last week. Expect still more stories savaging Xenophon in the weeks ahead. If his polling strengthens — South Australian polling is difficult because it’s so costly to assemble a decent sample size — then watch for News Corp to go feral.
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The role of Labor in last week’s story reflects that while Xenophon is primarily a threat to the government in South Australian lower house seats, he’s bad news for Labor and the Greens in the Senate. On current polling, NXT is almost certain to pick up three spots, and one in Victoria can’t be ruled out either. Much of Xenophon’s vote appears to have come from the Greens, who are polling dismally in South Australia, but also from Labor.
In 2011, when the Senate half-elected in 2010 sat with its increased contingent of Greens that rendered Xenophon irrelevant to legislative calculations, he cheerfully joked about how he’d gone from rooster to feather duster and the media wouldn’t be interested in talking to him any more. From July 2, courtesy of Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to go for a double dissolution election (on the ABCC, an issue that’s been in witness protection throughout the campaign), Xenophon will likely be cock of the walk on the red leather.
If he’s as successful as current polling suggests — whether or not that results in lower house seats — Xenophon will then face an even bigger challenge: managing success. A number of micro political parties have been destroyed by success: One Nation and Palmer United Party most obviously, but Ricky Muir’s Motoring Enthusiast Party also blew up after he was elected, as did John Madigan’s DLP; you could even class the Democrats, wrecked by Meg Lees, as a failed micro-party. Indeed, only the Greens have survived the transition from micro-party to permanent status.
There are a few reasons for this. Micro-parties rarely draw on experienced politicians as candidates; those that are successful usually send political neophytes into Parliament. The demands of public life — the press coverage, the relentless scrutiny, the hard work (especially if you’re a key swing vote and have to be across every piece of legislation) — can be too much for some; it also tends to inflate egos, leading to personality clashes. And many parties are virtually single-issue outfits, so the pressure to develop policy in areas previously glossed over internally can also cause splits. And unlike larger, well established parties, micro-parties don’t have internal mechanisms like factions or committees to resolve clashes or determine policy positions.
This is a key reason why the Greens have been almost unique in managing the transition from micro-party status: their first two leaders, Bob Brown and Christine Milne, were highly experienced politicians who had served and led their parties in Tasmanian Parliament, not political neophytes thrust, by a fluke of preferences, into politics. They were experienced both at the day-to-day work of parliamentarians and exercising power. Significantly, Xenophon now has over a decade of parliamentary experience himself.
Xenophon surely understands the dangers of bringing neophytes into politics. He was responsible for inflicting the appalling conspiracy theorist Ann Bressington on South Australian voters after she rode his coattails into the South Australian Parliament in 2006 (she subsequently fell out with him). Stirling Griff — who nearly made it in the 2013 election — and former staffer Skye Kakoschke-Moore will likely join him in the Senate. Naomi Halpern, who has long been prominent as an activist about financial misconduct, is an outside chance in Victoria. While politics can do peculiar things to egos, the relative closeness of the Xenophon, Griff and Kakoschke-Moore suggests they’ll be less prone to splitting PUP-style. It’s in the House of Reps, should NXT be successful there, that greater dangers await for party unity.
While the major parties hope porkbarrelling and smear jobs will stave off the threat of NXT, and the fate of other micro-parties might eventuate from any stumble, the electoral disillusion that Xenophon taps into won’t be so easily dispelled. Pauline Hanson tapped into resentment toward neoliberal economics and globalisation; Palmer tapped into a disgust with the practices of modern politics (absurdly, given how much of an insider he always was).
Xenophon, potently, taps into both; “Sick of Toxic Politics? Give us a Go!” is the slogan on the NXT website. But Xenophon campaigns hard on interventionism. He first entered South Australian Parliament on a “No Pokies” platform. These days, he is an old-fashioned protectionist on manufacturing in a way that resonates deeply in South Australia. Less extreme than Hanson, less self-obsessed than Palmer, more experienced in politics than either, Xenophon might prove a greater disruptive force than either of them.