The grassroots strategy of the Nick Xenophon Team
A million to one. Those are the odds, Nick Xenophon told The Saturday Paper, of his becoming kingmaker in a hung parliament.
It’s a line he’s been using a lot this election campaign, so frequently in fact that he volunteered it without even being asked about such a prospect. His determination to avoid revealing which way he is leaning is so intense he keeps fending off that line of inquiry whether or not it is being pursued.
It was the first night of winter, a chilly Wednesday evening in Adelaide, and a politician best known for daggy visual puns had managed to pack out iconic live music venue the Wheatsheaf Hotel. The Q&A session was over, yet most of the hundred or so patrons lingered, the room abuzz with the kind of conversation that Xenophon hopes will replace the partisan rancour of Australian political discourse. On stage this local political rockstar obliged requests for all the hits, from railing against predatory gambling – the Wheaty is pokie free, of course – to warning of the jobs apocalypse promised by the impending demise of South Australian car manufacturing, to gags about how cheap his suit is, to his vague promise to bring “common sense” back into politics. Those themes were all familiar enough, but a new twist to the performance was this long-time solo artist appearing on stage flanked by a pair of backing vocalists: Joe Hill, Nick Xenophon Team candidate for Adelaide, and Daniel Kirk, candidate for Hindmarsh. Appropriately in more ways than one, Xenophon sat in the centre. It was but one of a series of such events on the NXT election tour, with candidates across South Australia and beyond braving audience-directed Q&As in pubs, RSLs, bowls clubs, cafes and surf lifesaving clubs.
If the polls are to be believed, NXT’s grassroots strategy has them attracting somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter of the primary vote in South Australia, rivalling Labor’s popularity and not far off the Liberals – an unprecedented feat for an established minor party, let alone one making its electoral debut. As an independent candidate Xenophon has the form to back up the projections, in 2013 singlehandedly outpolling all of Labor’s South Australian senate candidates combined.
NXT is widely tipped to gain three senate seats this time round, along with the Liberal lower house seat of Mayo, held by former minister for cities Jamie Briggs. Yet, things could get even more out of hand. The party is also a fighting chance in Labor’s marginal Hindmarsh seat and the previously safe Liberal electorate of Sturt, the stamping ground of Industry Minister Christopher Pyne. A ReachTEL poll for Seven News last week went so far as to show the sprawling rural electorate of Grey, comfortably held by Liberal Rowan Ramsey, could fall to NXT candidate Andrea Broadfoot, who led the incumbent 54 per cent to 46 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis. If Grey is in play, then where is safe?
The truth is no one really has much of an idea how this is going to pan out. Closely fought three-way races across the state with the major parties indicating they will run split tickets makes South Australia something of a pollster’s nightmare, but Xenophon is cautious of overplaying his chances given the historic difficulty of cracking the duopoly, particularly with neither Labor nor Liberal parties indicating they will direct preferences his way.
“Look, we’ll see what happens,” he said. “This is a great experiment for democracy, it gives people another choice. I hope the figures hold up and we cause some upsets on election day.”
At the various community hubs NXT has toured, one concern that keeps cropping up is whether this new mob will end up like the previous one named after a colourful populist: the Palmer United Party, whose elected representatives have since mostly splintered off into their own eponymous political parties. The question was posed by an attendee at a Glenunga cafe meet-up in May hosted by NXT candidate for Sturt, emergency doctor Matthew Wright.
“I think we can all agree there are some subtle differences between Nick Xenophon and Clive Palmer,” was Wright’s dry response. When the same concern was raised at the Wheatsheaf event, Hill indicated it was a common question he’s faced in his quest to win Adelaide from Labor’s Kate Ellis.
“Comparing someone like Clive Palmer, who came in at a moment’s notice with lots of money and wanted to shake things up, as opposed to [Xenophon] who has 18 years’ parliamentary experience… comparing the two is apples and oranges,” he said.
“Every political party, the majors, the Greens, started with a handful of people with good ideas. We think we’re in a space where there is a mood for change, that there’s a groundswell of support for that and exciting times ahead.
“There was a process for people such as myself and [Kirk]. We had a year-long job interview, there were something like 450 people interested in running as candidates, whittled down to 32. We’ve formed a bond with a strong team focus.”
The process has yielded some decidedly colourful characters, such as candidate for Kingston Damian Carey, who believes genital acupuncture can cure infertility.
Hard to define
Given Xenophon presents as a non-ideological force, defining him is no easy task, which is perhaps why his opponents have taken to comparing him with other self-styled political outsiders. Former prime minister John Howard, who was airlifted into Mayo to contribute to the mission to save Briggs, equated NXT to Pauline Hanson, while Briggs has likened Xenophon to Donald Trump. It is economic rather than racial protectionism that links Xenophon to these two, but clearly such comparisons are loaded. The son of Mediterranean migrants laughed it off.
“I don’t have either Trump’s money or his hairdo,” he said.
The brash Queensland schtick of Palmer, or for that matter Hanson, hasn’t proved particularly successful in South Australia in any case, but other minor parties have done well here in the past, most notably the Australian Democrats, for whom Adelaide was something of a heartland during their decades wielding the balance of power. Like NXT, they too branded themselves as a voice for the political centre not beholden to big business or the unions.
Asked whether the Democrats are a more apt point of reference, Xenophon paused for several seconds before offering up a response devoid of the jokes he usually dishes out in such comparative exercises.
“I know [former Democrats leader] Natasha Stott Despoja and have enormous regard for her, and [party founder] Don Chipp was one of my political heroes,” he said.
“It’s a different time, different approach – social media has changed things as well, the way of communicating. So of course you can learn from them, they were decent people who did some really good things, but maybe our approach will not just be a question of responding to legislation but pushing issues we think have been ignored by the major parties.”
What exactly will be pushed, however, is another matter. The party advertises its core focuses on its website as “Predatory Gambling, Australian Made & Australian Jobs, Government & Corporate Accountability”. The same site lists “policy principles” that only occasionally veer into the specific, and in the party’s community meet-ups Xenophon’s candidates are managing to emulate their leader’s approach of engaging with questions in a way that acknowledges both sides of a particular debate without definitely committing to a course of action. What NXT promises its voters more than a set of policies is that representatives will engage with the issues in good faith and via an evidence-based approach, a strategy that allows the party to reach out to both disaffected Liberal and Labor voters.
Xenophon is so coy of appearing to favour one major party over another that he won’t even reveal what issues he believes he could best make progress on with a Turnbull government, as opposed to what could be achieved with a Shorten administration.
“I will work constructively with either side, but they know we will stay true to our core principles,” he said. “It depends on the circumstances, it depends on the make-up of parliament, it depends on the make-up of the crossbench.
“We know where we stand, but where the major parties stand sometimes depends on what they want to get through and who they have to negotiate with.”
If South Australian voters decide they like the sound of NXT as much as Xenophon’s solo efforts, soon the whole country might have to start dancing to his tune, whether they like it or not.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 18, 2016 as "What’s NXT?". Subscribe here.