Long before he made his name in federal politics, Nick Xenophon was working hard at the art of the political stunt in South Australia. In 2018, as the leader of SA Best, Xenophon is running with serious political ambition of holding the balance of power, with candidates in 36 of SA’s 47 lower house seats.

But while Xenophon’s run may be serious, his stunts remain. In 2018, instead of staging stunts for the nightly news or morning papers, Xenophon has embraced the art of the terrible campaign ad.

It’s the sort of political ad — bad green screen, terrible writing, awful singing, atrocious choreography — you would expect from a minor player as an under-financed misstep. But SA Best has very quickly become the third player in a three-party race. What this means for the make-up of SA’s government come March 17 is anyone’s guess.

The Labor Party has formed government in SA since 2002 — and despite SA’s reputation for being a conservative state (thanks to some of its contributions to national politics), the Liberal Party has only been in power a total of 13 years since 1965.

This lopsided political equation leads to particularly odd election seasons: South Australians like to complain about their government. But they also don’t seem to feel a lot of bother about changing it. To make the season all the more complex, fixed four-year terms means the election is against Adelaide’s “Mad March” festival season — a political circus that must compete with actual circuses for attention and media coverage. The smallness of South Australia, with only 7% of the national population, means state elections are fighting against a much bigger noise: in recent weeks, the Joyce saga has been a much bigger story in the local press than anything facing SA voters.

And so many voters, after years of much sameness and election seasons overshadowed, the race becomes a sideshow. The most important unknown, perhaps, is the question of if Liberal Party leader Steven Marshall will again gaffe and encourage people to “vote Labor”, as he did on the eve of the 2014 election. SA elections are, perhaps, less a meeting of the minds and more a hope for amusement. The first big story of the election was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, after saying they would be a strong contender, missing the deadline to register as a political party in South Australia.

Xenophon is playing into this local want for spectacle and misfire. His ad, with Indian dancers and youth on skateboards, speaks to the rest of his campaign: I am not what you have had before. His bravado and success in the polls has led to the almost complete invisibility of the other player from federal politics, Cory Bernardi, running in 33 of the lower house seats. While the Liberal and Labor parties have invested in high-production-value ads, similar to the ads we have all seen many times before, Xenophon just wants to make sure we’re talking about him — and talking about him we are.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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