With South Australia’s March state election in full swing, Crikey sat down with Nick Xenophon to find out how to disrupt a century-old political system.

1. Separate from the upcoming SA election and your role in it, do you believe that the traditional two-party system as practised for decades in Australia, the US, UK and France is fundamentally broken — and if so, what comes next?

It seems like a mistake to generalise across Western democracies. Australian politics is very different from politics in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada or even New Zealand. Political trends outside the English-speaking world are even more diverse. In Australia, support for the two-party system has lasted over a century but has been in steady decline for more than 25 years. Not that long ago, the Labor and Liberal Parties could rely on primary vote support in the order of 40% each. Now, SA Labor may be lucky to secure the support of one in four voters. The Liberals may count on only one in three.

People have walked away in droves as the establishment parties have been more and more focused on internal power struggles and hyper-partisan conflict while people’s incomes have stagnated, job insecurity and living costs have climbed. In the future, we may well see minority governments and power-sharing are the new political norm and this may well afford new opportunities for parliamentary reform and efforts to enhance the accountability of executive governments, transparency in decision-making and political processes more focused negotiation, compromise and real policy debate than aggressive partisan confrontation. I am hopeful that my party, SA-BEST will play an important part in bringing about a new political paradigm in Australia.

2. A great political leader is someone who … (complete the sentence, no cliches or platitudes)

A great political leader is someone who puts the public interest ahead of their own political interest.

3. As someone who does it more than most, what is your philosophy about political compromise? Is a little bit of something worthwhile better than nothing worthwhile?

Otto von Bismarck once famously said that politics is the art of the possible. What is possible often involves compromise. The greatest political successes expand what is possible to achieve the best that can be.

4. Who are the three best politicians you have ever seen up close (and explain why)?

Contemporary Australian politics is all too often a triumph of low expectations.

From earlier times, I would include John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Tom Playford, Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. All those leaders led cabinets packed with talent.

In more recent times, however, it’s much harder to single anyone out. If I named the best three politicians I have seen up close, I think I would be obliged in fairness to also name the bottom 100 because the bottom of the barrel is now crowded with all too many hacks and time-servers. So I’ll keep my opinions and assessments to myself because, regrettably, one never knows who one has to negotiate with next.

5. What happens to a civic society if it loses thousands of journalists who never get replaced because the funding model has broken?

A vibrant, free press is a vital part of democracy. Without a dynamic fourth estate, democracy is diminished and prey to misinformation, manipulation and spin. It’s not for nothing that the great Washington Post has put on its masthead the slogan “Democracy dies in darkness” (adapting a line from a judgment by US Court of Appeals judge Damon J Keith). The collapse of traditional media business models has left us in vacuum in which support for democratic processes is by no means assured. Just how the media, governments and political groups, civil society, business, and the public deal with this rapidly changing circumstance will have a big impact on whether our democratic institutions and processes remain robust or whether they too will erode and decline.

6. We know you say you aren’t aiming to become SA premier, but surely it must be just a tiny little bit tempting (no cliches here please)?

SA-BEST is a start-up political party. We don’t have the resources and advantages of incumbency enjoyed by Labor and the Liberals. I have to win the seat of Hartley which is a huge challenge. I expect that the election campaign will be one of the dirtiest and most vile South Australia has ever seen as Labor and Liberal try every grubby trick they can think of in an effort to keep me and my team out of the SA Parliament.

I have privately been threatened to “expect a campaign the likes of which has never been seen”, directed against me personally. Never before has a political start-up like SA-BEST prompted such vicious reactions, not only from both Labor and the Liberals but from many entrenched interests, notably the poker machine lobby led by the Australian Hotels Association. They sense that the political tide has turned against their interests and their sense of entitlement may well drive some very ugly tactics.

SA-BEST is aiming to win the balance of power, not to form government. If we can secure a balance of power position, it will be a historic breakthrough, disrupting the cosy duopoly that has governed SA for a century; but more importantly we will be in a position of influence to press for and secure reforms that will fix the broken politics of our state through parliamentary reform, improved accountability and transparency from whoever forms government.

7. Could you rate your best and worst publicity stunts for effectiveness?

I have always found gentle humour and eye-catching imagery an important part of political communication. I think it would be a good thing if some of Australia’s very staid and stilted professional politicians could lighten up and be a bit more creative in their efforts. I leave it to others to judge the effectiveness of my performance.

Crikey is approaching all the major players in the SA election with a similar series of direct questions, hoping to cut through some of the typical campaign blather. How do you reckon Xenophon went? We think he played it pretty safe, which is strange for someone so fond of the spotlight. Here’s hoping the others are up for a challenge.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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