Xenophon stumbles, but could still blow the dam wide open in SA

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“Dam Buster! Explorer says new mine could be state’s biggest … ” screams the front of The Advertiser, available free everywhere, piles of ’em lying around airports, hotels, coffee shops, snowdrifts of ’em. Rupert Murdoch’s first paper is now on the way to being a freesheet.

Some copper miner is complaining that he can’t get clearance for his billion-dollar project from the local Aboriginal Affairs Minister. This is front-page news, five days before an election that may well deliver Australia its most politically complex lower house in more than a century.

Jay Weatherill’s Labor government is governing with 23 seats in the 47-seat assembly. The Libs won 22 at the 2014 election, but defections and byelections have reduced them to 19. Four independents would thus have power if they could work as a unit, but with one de facto Labor, one Lib and two centrists, Weatherill has managed to sail through its fourth term.

How have Mike Rann and Jay Weatherill managed to stay in power? Sensible can-do centrists, quiet achievers, etc, etc, but also a kink in the distribution here, which had Labor win government with 48.4% of the two-party-preferred vote in 2010, and a whopping gap (47% to 53%) for the Liberal opposition in 2014 — the product of vast demographic imbalance; 75% of the population living in Adelaide, and the rural 25% counting about eight Labor voters in total.

The ‘Tiser’s headline reminds you of the strangeness of the place; despite being one of the most urbanised states in the world, Adelaide, spreadout, sprawling, half vacant, perpetually feels like a big country town, on the edge of an untameable desert. The city lives on Russell Drysdale time — life is an iron verandah, rusting in the sun. Sometimes it’s hard to believe anything has happened here, or ever will.

But now Nick Xenophon is roaring to the rescue. Or was. The mid-century matinee idol ex-Senator — Dirk Bogarde hair, and Humphrey Bogart eyes — threw together SA-Best, as his NXT Senate team came apart under the impact of section 44 rulings, disqualifying himself and NXT fellow Skye Kakoschke-Moore.

Early polling had SA-Best (which is contesting 36 assembly seats) on some staggering figures, heading towards 35% — the product of an utterly underwhelming Liberal opposition, the desire for a real alternative, and the belief that state Labor had let industry go at the behest of neoliberal-dominated federal Labor.

But Xenophon had no party in place, no big money behind him, and both major parties have come at him, out of fear that success here could rip open the fabric of Australian party politics.

The level of major party dissatisfaction is so high that, if Xenophon could’ve done it and gotten a magic four-way result of, say, 16-15-14-2 seats (SA-Best, Labor/Liberals, and the Greens respectively), he would have first call to form a government. He probably couldn’t, or not for long, but the sheer fact of it, the event, would have been shocking to the conniving major party duopoly.

That’s not going to happen now. Nor, most likely, is Plan B, where SA-Best gets 8-10 seats, and could be a minor party in a coalition government, with four or five ministries. The price of that, for any major party, would have been reform of the whole system, parliamentary numbers, donations law, transparency, etc, etc.

But a poll that will be dropping as we go to press will show that SA-Best’s support, having collapsed to 21% two weeks ago, has fallen further, into the mid-teens or lower in indicative Adelaide suburban seats such as Dunstan and Mawson. The reason? A barrage from all sides. The Libs have been hitting the anti-pokies SA-Best with a scare campaign about the “devastation” that the party’s plan (cutting the state’s 3300 poker machines by half) would wreak.

Labor has been hitting SA-Best with some very dodgy stuff about Xenophon’s votes in the Senate on Gonski 2.0 and penalty rates, and the Greens have come at him from the left, with a 100% pokies removal plan.

But it’s the attack from the right, and their supporters — the SA chapter of the Australian Hotels Associations, and our old friend Woolworths — that has big money behind it. As in Tasmania, it’s about the pokies, the machines that ate Australia. There it was the pokies themselves, freedom to choose. Here it’s Xenophon. The “No Way Nick” campaign suggests that the anti-pokies push is wanton ego on his part.

That’s had an effect as Xenophon’s push for free publicity — roadside stunts, crap ads — has started to wear a little. And to get a party up from zero, he’s charged candidates 20 grand to have the SA-Best imprimatur. Nothing untoward about that per se, but it turns you into a de facto professional-class party, and that will cost him Labor votes, and even second preferences. The Greens and Labor have both preferenced a range of SA-Best candidates behind the Libs, calling SA-Best “orange Liberals”.

Despite all that, Xenophon could still have a triumph of sorts, a Plan C. That would involve a four-way split: say, 21 Labor or Lib (plus dedicated independent), 20 Lib or Labor (ditto), four SA-Best, two true independents or Greens. That very possible result would leave Xenophon in a position to demand Coalition, key ministries, and his reform package as the price of the deal. If not exactly a “dam buster” yet, it would be an explosive charge skipping across the top of the water, to blow major party control open.