Mar 14, 2018

Being Nick Xenophon

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Nick Xenophon, alone, jumps around a car too small for him — a red toy Fiat, his face plastered over it, a clown car — into a sandwich board too large for him.

We’re at Campbelltown Mall — the IGA and a strip of cheap and cheerful shops, an alterations and repairers, a cake shop, a “snack bar”, a newso. Through the window of the dry cleaners a mirror winks at us, piercing Adelaide sun.

Nick has the huge sandwich board — “I’m Fronting Up For Hartley!” — halfway over his head. His helmet black hair does not move (there are single strands of grey in it now). Nor the white-toothed smile. He can’t jiggle the thing into place.

But he’s still trying to direct the photo I’m taking.

“You should take me through the mirror! Sorry I shouldn’t direct! I’d quite like to direct!”

His team, in bright orange T-shirts, minder — 23-year old Michael — and long-time staffer Amanda, are suddenly there, struggle with the strap-hung placards.

Nick is already off, talking to the punters. “Hey, how are ya? Hey Dave.”

He knows about half those passing.

Labour Day in Adelaide, a place that still takes its holidays seriously. The town is empty enough on the best of days; today it appears to have a negative population.

Having been round the traps for his candidates, Nick is back in Campbelltown, at the centre of Hartley, the electorate he’s gunning for.

I was hoping we’d do some doorknocking — he’d promised to doorknock the whole electorate, though this week said that wouldn’t happen — but we’re doing this instead.

He’s lived here for 25 years. One suburb over. Paradise. “I live in Paradise!” People beam at him, clap him on the shoulder. Paradise, indeed.

“I’ve already voted! I’d vote for you again, if I could.”

But when someone asks a question, he switches immediately into policy.

“We’ve got a program on transparency in government …”

“Class sizes, I tell you why this has got the way it is” — always rounding out with the kicker — “and if you vote for me, you’ll get a revolution in government,” etc, etc.

It’s not rote. He listens, replies. The retail politician in the empty shopping centre. These are real one-minute conversations. And it’s good to see a professional at work.

He’s pumped up, now, beaming. He wasn’t a couple of hours ago. He’s coming alive, a coiffured golem, drawing energy from the very air around.

“You love the crowd.”

“It’s the rum baba!” he says.

***

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Two hours earlier, sitting outside Pasta Deli — a local LA-style eatery that locals speak of as if it were Vienna’s Café Centrum before World War I — Nick Xenophon was staring a little discouraged, at his mostly gone cake, a rum baba, remnants of sponge lying in sweet rum on a plate, ravaged so thoroughly it is all but smoking a cigarette in afterglow.

“Should I have another rum baba? I don’t drink. I get all my alcohol from food.”

“What did you have for lunch?” I ask.

“I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Jesus, Nick, have a ham sandwich. I’ve got a walkabout and a candidate’s meeting. You’ll sugar crash like an eight-year old.”

“Good idea,” he dashes in to order.

He’s back. The energy has gone again. The idea of a ham sandwich had been a temporary, carby shining star. Now it was gone.

“So how’s it going?” I ask.

“Oh … I’m living the dream, living the dream. Suddenly tired again. The black hair helmet droops. “Sooooooo tired.” The phone rings. A query about a Facebook post.

“That uh, that’s something that you should have let me look at.” Stern, but polite. “It probably doesn’t matter but I need to see those things before they go out.”

He hangs up, turns to me. “We’ve got this kid doing the social media, he’s great …”

“There’s always a kid doing social media. Don’t you have a campaign manager?”

“Well there’s a campaign co-ordinator, there’s a-“

He’s scrolling polls on his phone.

“But,” I ask, “there’s no one saying ‘Nick, be here, say this, Nick stop thinking about that’ …?”

“Phooooof.” He names a seat, which I agree not to name. “That’s gone … did you see the car?”

I’d been driven there in the Fiat, a ’60s sardine tin. Michael, Nick’s 23-year-old assistant was worried I wouldn’t want to ride in it. “There’s no airbags.”

“Toulio lent it to me. Did you meet Toulio?”

Waiters come, with a plate of ribs. And another plate of ribs. Like two cows fell into a BBQ sauce vat and drowned. It is 3.45 in the afternoon.

“Nick did you order me ribs?”

“Ye-eh!”

We tear the meat from the bones. He’s revived.

“So it’s been tough?”

The beaming smile folds up. “Oh they’ve gone me, they’ve totally gone me.”

True enough. The TV ads are mostly “Say No To Nick”. Labor has preferenced 18 Libs ahead of half SA-Best’s 36 candidates, saying they treat “blue” and “orange” Liberals just the same. (“Yeah, but the SA-Best they’ve preferenced are all in ALP strongholds; the Libs have been preferenced in SA-Best winnables,” someone later observes.)

He’s got a right to feel aggrieved. The two main claims against him — that by voting for Gonski 2.0 he voted for $220 million in cuts (a Labor claim, based on comparing the actual package offered, to Labor’s suggested, larger, Gonski, not on offer) and that cutting pokies by half would pretty much destroy the state’s hospitality industry — are both so outrageous, they obscure a lot of the stuff he might need to answer for: voting to cut company tax, tilting against wind farms, a rare example of the literal quixotic.

“Surely this was always going to happen,” I say.

“Tsschhhhh yeah, but…” He’s distracted again. “Not at this level, four, five times the spending. You can see it in the figures.”

“It’s also native doubt, isn’t it? People think your team wouldn’t hang together.”

“Look, this would be a consensus party; I’m not a dictator.”

“Yeah, but I think that’s what some people are worried about.”

He’s distracted again. No one could doubt his ability to multitask. It’s the ability to task I wonder about. The initial plan, when SA-Best was established in a few weeks last year, was to contest around 15 strong seats, give or take.

Polls showed support in the mid-30s. Suddenly the slate became 36 of 47 seats, enough to be aiming for government. Spread too thin. Candidates who stuck their hand up and paid $20,000 for the ride. It’s got out of control quickly. Beyond the propaganda barrage, people took note.

“It’s amazing, the advertising, you think there’d be at least some …” he gropes for a word, “not even fairness, just … I mean it’s been ridiculous …”

He’s amused, appalled, exhausted. And on his phone again. The conversation’s made me edgy, because he reminds me of me a little too much for comfort. Attention junkies, excitement junkies. I myself feel the energy drain away when stuff stops happening for five minutes, when there’s not an event to be at, a deadline to make the fingers fly across the keyboard. Consistent application is a mystery to me. Nick’s a mirror of that, with a better head of hair. I’d slice that black bob right off him with the ribs knife, stick it, bloodied, on my head, if I could get away with it.

“Don’t let that fool you,” a state political commentator tells me later, “when Ann Bressington [an SA upper house member, the first of Nick’s several defectors] went him hard in the press, a whole bunch of people he’d helped came out to defend him. Asbestosis victims, industrial manslaughter families … no one asked them to, they just did.”

But for now: “Let’s go! Let’s go to Campbelltown!” He’s up. The chair flies behind him. The ribs or the rum baba? We’ll find out.

***

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The only grief Nick gets outside the IGA, in is huge sign — “I guess this is on-the-job training, if it doesn’t come good,” I say, the only remark that, from his look, seems to have cut close to the rib — is, what else, an old family friend; 60s, a magnificent mullet gone silver grey, Italian, five foot, black leathers, big paunch, like out of a seniors’ production of Grease.

“Nicky, Nicky, Nicky what are you doing you breakin’ my heart, we get Labor in, everything goes terrible, why you wanna let Labor in.”

“Frankie, Frankie, I don’t wanna let Labor in,” he says to the only man in the state who thinks Nick is closet Labor.

“That Rann,” says Frankie, approvingly, contradictorily, “he got sixty million from the government for some bridge, I think. He say to them, sure thirty million if you want the bridge halfway– Weatherill, phhhhppp!”

“So what you want,” I say to Frankie, “in a premier, is a better grifter.”

“Exactly!” Frankie bangs my chest with the back of his hand.

“Take a leaflet, Frankie!” Nick says. Grifter-lovers vote too. He’s suddenly tired again.

We’re done. Surely doorknocking would have been more productive. He stops in the snack bar. They know him. Outside, Michael hustles him out of the sandwich board, windows all around flashing opaque with late afternoon sunlight. The clown car awaits. Come Saturday, either the whole SA-Best team will step out of the red Fiat and into the balance of power, or them without him, or just him solo, a local member without influence. With the chance of government gone, I’m not sure what Nick Xenophon really wants. In that, as the red Fiat scoots off, I am not alone.

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