Nick Xenophon’s return to state politics has delivered a wild card to South Australia’s election, with the possibility his SA-Best party will decide whether Labor or the Liberals form government. By Terry Plane.

Xenophon's run in SA election

SA-Best leader Nick Xenophon.
SA-Best leader Nick Xenophon.
Credit: AAP Image / Morgan Sette

This is a three-way election contest like no other. It’s different, principally, because in one corner there is Nick Xenophon.

Up against Labor and the Liberal Party is Xenophon the stuntman, who quit a safe and effective place in the federal Senate to contest the South Australian election. It’s Xenophon the great disrupter, slagging off the established parties and running candidates in 36 of the state’s 47 lower house electorates. But here’s the rub: SA-Best, which he leads, is a one-man party.

While Xenophon personally battles to establish a beachhead in the inner eastern suburban seat of Hartley, he must campaign for his other 35 lower house candidates, most of whom are relatively unknown in state politics. Some are suburban mayors, some have been in other parties, but they all depend on Xenophon for profile, which he is afforded largely via friendly local press. And while he’s running himself ragged trying to help his candidates – “I make Woody Allen look like an optimist,” he says – within his inner circle the expectations are realistic.

Usually, this close to an election – to be held on March 17 – there’s some synergy between the party polling for Labor and Liberal. This time, according to sources from both parties, the figures are all over the place. Estimates for SA-Best run from three seats to 13. Both sides are saying, “We have no idea what’s going to happen.” But those close to the whirlwind that is Xenophon say the party will be “happy” with three to five seats. That would almost certainly put Xenophon in the position of choosing between Labor incumbent Jay Weatherill and Liberal contender Steven Marshall as the state’s next premier.

Without Xenophon this would have been just another election. After 16 years of Labor administration – almost 10 years under Mike Rann, then more than six under Weatherill – and a dramatic redistribution, the Liberal Party would have been expected to move across the chamber into government. Then along came Mr X.

He changed his surname from Xenophou some time before entering the South Australian parliament in 1997, then served in the federal Senate from 2008–17. And he’s made this state election more than interesting. But because of the interest he’s generated in the whole show, focus on the performance of Weatherill and Marshall has heightened.

From Weatherill’s “Jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra and increased renewable energy targets to Marshall’s portrayal of a state in crisis that only he can fix, two weeks out from polling day there’s close attention to policies and promises as well as the personalities. This leaves Xenophon struggling somewhat: policies on the run, policies without costings, cut-and-paste policies from pressure groups. The hard graft of a campaign he’s carrying on his own shoulders has seen him descend from the gravitas of an influential senator to a struggler without the support of a party structure.

Senior Liberal sources suggest Xenophon will battle to even win the seat he’s standing in. He chose to contest Hartley because that’s where he lives. It’s held by the Libs, through Vincent Tarzia, who is acknowledged as a solid local member. Hartley also sits within the federal seat of Sturt, held by that clever campaigner Christopher Pyne, who in his 25 years in the seat has withstood heralded challenges from Labor and Xenophon’s federally focused NXT party. It’s understood, on good authority, that Tarzia is the beneficiary of assistance from Pyne and his campaign brains trust.

Labor’s Grace Portolesi, who preceded Tarzia in Hartley, is also campaigning strongly, leading to the Liberal prediction that Xenophon could finish second or even third in the seat. “Running for a lower house seat is a lot different to running for upper houses, which is all he’s ever done,” says a senior Liberal. “Voters take a much closer look at you.” The Liberals also highlight Xenophon’s habit of losing allies, pointing to former parliamentary colleagues Ann Bressington and John Darley, and former NXT candidate Tim Storer, now bound for Canberra as an independent senator. Then there is Peter Humphries, top of Advance SA’s Legislative Council ticket for this election. Humphries is running with Xenophon’s former partner, Jenny Low, who started her run for the council by claiming Xenophon pursued her while she was on his staff and insisted that their relationship remained a secret for its seven-year course. She said he was “manipulative and controlling”. Xenophon responded to Low’s statement with disappointment and rejected it.

Humphries told The Saturday Paper he was “dealing with” the Labor and Liberal parties regarding possible preference swaps, and that he was hopeful of picking up the last of the 11 upper house seats being contested at this election. It’s likely the Greens and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives will also claim one upper house seat, and that the Liberal Party will take three. The ALP and SA-Best will split the other five.

In three-way contests, preferences assume greater weight. “They’re always important, but they’re super important this time,” says the father of the upper house and shadow treasurer, Liberal Rob Lucas, who is participating in his 14th state campaign. His party has won three of those contests and Steven Marshall has said he’ll step down if they don’t succeed again this time. Marshall has also said he wouldn’t do a deal with Xenophon if that was what was needed to assume power. Lucas explains: “If the Liberal Party was to make it easy to vote for SA-Best via a deal, people would vote for them. We’re making it clear we want people to vote Liberal.”

Jay Weatherill, more pragmatically, has said Labor would wait to see the results after polling day, then work out if it needed to do any deals.

Weatherill has said in a couple of speeches that “a weak opposition doesn’t make a strong government” and in some parts of the electorate – including business and Liberal supporters – Marshall is seen as Labor’s best asset. Even so, “it’s a hell of a challenge”, according to Weatherill. Labor concedes there have been problems in aged care, child protection – a problem in all jurisdictions – and further education, but the government believes the opening of the new $2 billion Royal Adelaide Hospital and the appointment of Weatherill’s heir apparent Peter Malinauskas as health minister has that difficult portfolio under control.

Labor also believes Nick Xenophon, as a former member of the Liberal Party, is a closet Lib in this contest, and they highlight his support as a senator for the Turnbull government’s 2017 education funding cut, as well as his overall voting pattern in Canberra. They are keen to push their renewable energy credentials, backed by Elon Musk, and to knock down the Liberal accusation of a state in crisis.

Treasurer and energy minister Tom Koutsantonis offers economic evidence. He says South Australia’s economic growth is the third fastest in the nation and that the state’s credit rating is on the second line nationally, with the second-lowest debt and third-lowest unemployment. “There are a lot of indices showing our economy is above the national average,” he says. On South Australia’s continuing push into renewables – aiming for 75 per cent of supply and 25 per cent storage by 2025 – the state should be “praised not mocked for its leadership”. “Prices are starting to drop,” he says, “and for the first time in 25 years we’re a net exporter of power.”

Then there’s Cory Bernardi, who believes the future of the state’s power needs should be satisfied with full participation in the nuclear fuel cycle. Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, which merged with Family First last year, have 33 candidates in this election, but without the broad ambitions of SA-Best. “We’re a new party, with a new brand,” Bernardi says, “but our philosophies and our values are predictable. No one really knows what Labor, Liberal and Xenophon stand for.” Bernardi has declined to say whether he would preference his former party, the Liberals.

The next two weeks will be critical. Opinion polls indicate the Liberals are sitting on a primary vote in the mid to high 30s. Labor is in the high 20s and SA-Best is drifting around 20. If leadership is a key factor on March 17, Labor will win. If voter fatigue is a greater factor, the Liberals should get up. Xenophon? Perhaps three or four seats. In the end result, preferences and an inflated crossbench including SA-Best may be decisive. The current state of the assembly, where government is decided, is ALP 23, Liberal 22, and two independents. In what’s seen as a volatile contest, it won’t take change in many seats to change the government – if that’s what people want.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 3, 2018 as "The X factor".

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