Paul Bongiorno
What’s NXT without Nick Xenophon?

Last Monday, it was clear Nick Xenophon was itching to get out of the place. He sat in his first-floor office on the senate side of Parliament House surrounded by cardboard boxes stuffed full of documents and belongings. He had decided long before the High Court eligibility case to cut short his newly won six-year term and take the political gamble of his life back in South Australian state politics.

There is no doubt his leaving the national capital creates new uncertainty for the Turnbull government in trying to guide contentious legislation through the senate. Xenophon insists he will continue to play a role advising his three Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) senators in their future negotiations. At the same time, he is making a play to hold the balance of power in the state parliament. One poll suggests he may even have the numbers to be premier.

Despite assurances that he has “plenty of energy”, it is a big ask for him to have a foot in both parliaments. Labor people who have negotiated with him over the past decade believe his unique talents and experience will be too hard to replace. They are sure the NXT will not survive without NX. None of his colleagues have exhibited the same knack for headline-grabbing self-promotion that at the same time puts pressure on the major parties.

Labor will obviously not mind too much. On the day the news broke, Bill Shorten said Xenophon was quitting Canberra because he regretted he had done too many “dud deals” with the Liberals. Top of the opposition’s list is the role he played in restoring the union-bashing building industry watchdog along with cuts to family tax benefits and company taxes, supporting the reworked Gonski education funding package and the media reforms.

The wily senator probably wears the list as a badge of honour. It certainly boosts his claims to be an honest broker, especially as the Liberals could come up with their own list of votes in which he has disappointed them. For example, he hasn’t supported their university reforms because they are too tough on students and he isn’t impressed with extending tax cuts to the biggest businesses.

There is no doubt the “X factor” is huge in South Australia, but translating massive personal brand support into a fully fledged political party, even with the catchy name SA Best, is already proving difficult. While Xenophon would dearly love to run 30 candidates in lower house seats, finding the right ones who are willing to be part of the push takes more than wishful thinking. The infrastructure has to be constructed from scratch and the money has to be found to fund it. Other minor parties, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, are testament to the car crash it can become. Already Xenophon has had to sack one candidate for making a joke of domestic violence.

Maybe Xenophon has the verve to do an Australian version of France’s new president Emmanuel Macron. He has just over 130 days to come through the middle with a new party capable of taking government. He has been laser-like, positioning himself as a fresh alternative to the old Labor and Liberal parties. He says, “We have a government that deserves to lose and an opposition that does not deserve to win.”

It’s a sentiment that is certainly not confined to the good burghers of Adelaide. Business as usual is leaving voters with a distinct distaste for the big players, which explains why their primary votes are shrinking. But we are still seeing plenty of it. This style of politics is turbocharged by fears that the government’s one-seat majority is about to disappear. This week, panic was palpable, especially in the National Party as its leader, Barnaby Joyce, and two senior players, senators Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan, were on tenterhooks over the High Court’s announcement on Monday that it would rule on their eligibility in four days’ time. Pessimism was growing that all three would be in strife. Despite earlier assurances from the prime minister that all would be in the clear, Joyce has wasted no time in recent weeks campaigning in his seat of New England. The court’s widely anticipated decision to strike him out on Friday was a vindication for this activity, but at the same time exposed how brazen he was in not standing aside. Of course Turnbull’s prediction on his eligibility “and the court will so hold” looks as foolish now as it did three months ago.

The deputy prime minister has written personal letters to his constituents, apologising for the inconvenience caused by the doubts over his dual citizenship. He assured them that despite his New Zealand father, he was born in Tamworth and raised in the electorate.

Nothing was being left to chance. The party decided to appoint Senator Nigel Scullion as its acting parliamentary leader. Joyce would remain the leader, but would be campaigning to get back in to parliament. The model for this structure was Campbell Newman, who was nominated state leader in Queensland almost a year before he won a parliamentary seat in the 2012 election. The federal Nationals view Joyce as every bit a drawcard for the party as Newman was before his landslide win.

But potentially the most damaging piece of pre-emption came in front-page stories in two of Australia’s biggest-selling tabloids last Saturday. The Courier-Mail and The Daily Telegraph ran pieces with the headline, “The dirty war on Barnaby”. The stories spoke of him facing “a deeply personal crisis” and having “struggled with issues that have affected his marriage”. They accused Joyce’s long-time rival, Tony Windsor, of being part of a vicious social media campaign of innuendo against him. If it was meant to inoculate Joyce against a whispering campaign, his office was far from grateful, slamming the story as a breach of journalistic ethics, spreading scuttlebutt and gossip. A senior staffer fears it is a harbinger of worse to come in any campaign.

New England is a conservative rural and regional seat. Gossip, if it takes hold, can undermine the standing of even a very strong candidate such as Joyce, especially with women. The party is bracing for a huge number of candidates to run and believes unions and GetUp! will be very busy on the ground, urging voters to “send a message to Canberra”. With national opinion polling showing the Coalition is even less popular than it was at the general election – which was not terribly popular at all – a sizeable swing against it is more likely than not.

When governments are struggling as badly as this one, everything they touch can sour. It wasn’t enough for Tony Abbott to spend $80 million sooling a royal commission onto his political opponents in the unions, which failed to make adverse findings against Bill Shorten. Now the Turnbull government, through its employment minister, Michaelia Cash, has reprised the tactic. Cash had referred to the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) donations made by the Australian Workers’ Union under Shorten’s leadership. The payments went to GetUp! and to three federal seat campaigns, including Shorten’s own. Abbott’s royal commission saw no reason to investigate the payments, though it had all the documents.

For good measure, a staff member tipped off the media about raids this week. Television cameras were in place before the AFP arrived. What better way to reinforce the image that there was something dodgy about your political opponent? The government is highly indignant at any suggestion it was playing dirty pool politics, the sort typical in tin-pot dictatorships. Ministers expect the public to believe Cash’s reference did not amount to a directive. As if the brand new commissioner, Mark Bielecki, appointed by this minister, would not see it as an imperative.

A sure sign that the whole exercise stinks is that the whiff got up Nick Xenophon’s politically sensitive nose. Though his vote was vital in setting up the ROC, he thought the media tipoff and the police raids “doesn’t have a good feel about it”. He told Sky News it “looks too political” and he “couldn’t understand the priorities”. The basis for the raids, according to the commission, is a suspicion that the Australian Workers’ Union would tamper with or conceal vital documents. It didn’t say who harboured these suspicions, but a magistrate was convinced enough to issue search warrants. The union challenged those warrants in the Federal Court, claiming they were an abuse of power and process. Cash denied five times in senate estimates that she or her office were behind the media tipoff, or indeed the raids. These denials crumbled into an embarrassing shambles when it was revealed late in the day that one of her senior staff members had in fact alerted the TV networks.

Malcolm Turnbull insists Shorten still has questions to answer. One of them is why he would authorise $100,000 to GetUp!, especially because he claims the organisation works against the interests of the AWU’s members. Presumably Turnbull means it campaigns for a phasing out of fossil fuels and real climate change action. A disappointing attack coming from him. But make no mistake, the outfit is feared and detested by the Liberals. They have set out to nobble it any way they can.

The same goes for Shorten. Turnbull has to destroy the Labor leader before the Labor leader destroys him. The 30th bad Newspoll is still three or four months away, if fortunes don’t improve. Shorten says that all an increasingly desperate prime minister has left is to try to smear him.

Labor is demanding Cash’s resignation for misleading parliament. The departing Xenophon, in typical fashion, is now calling for an inquiry into the police raid tipoff. That’s one task the government itself won’t ask the AFP to do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2017 as "The X factor leaves prime time".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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