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Nick Xenophon's tantalising gambit



The decision by South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon came out of the blue but it has rattled the political elites in his state and stirred the pot nationally.

Nick XenophonHe has gambled on leaving the leadership of his three-member NXT Senate team plus one House of Representatives NXT MP to return to South Australian politics. He will stand for the Liberal-held House of Assembly seat of Hartley, leading a team of a dozen or more candidates for his new state party called SA Best.

This is a fresh gambit which is not about returning to the SA Legislative Council where he cut his political teeth for a decade before switching to the Senate ten years ago. He is not aiming to consolidate an upper house cross bench position but to forge a more powerful balance of power position at the next state election due early next year. He will be confronting the struggling long-term Labor government led by Jay Weatherill and the hopeful Liberal Opposition led by Steven Marshall.

Xenophon has electoral momentum behind him after the 2016 national election (22 per cent of the SA Senate vote), though he is troubled by Section 44 problems and has not been the force in the current federal parliamentary term that he was in the previous one. The NXT party has also suffered disunity and defections at the state level. The big question is whether he can repeat his barnstorming federal effort at the March 2018 state election.

Xenophon's gamble raises two immediate implications and suggests one bigger and more tantalising question for Australian politics.

One immediate implication is for SA politics. If NXT proves to be as popular as most commentators predict then neither of the major parties will be able to form a majority government in the 47-seat lower house.

This has happened several times to SA Labor under Mike Rann and Weatherill recently, and each time they have performed Houdini-like escapes to create stable coalition governments with a variety of unlikely partners. But the challenge is greater this time. Xenophon may elect a large group of SA Best MPs somewhat like One Nation did when it broke through in Queensland in 1998.


"If Hanson did a Xenophon and flipped to state politics she would ensure that One Nation did even better in the state election and would become the kingmaker that Xenophon hopes to be."


Another implication is for federal politics. The NXT team will suddenly become very inexperienced without its leader. This further weakens the Senate cross-bench, following the resignations of Senator Bob Day and the two Green senators, Scott Ludlum and Larissa Waters. Experience is always difficult to factor into parliamentary negotiations, and Xenophon may still be a guiding presence as NXT party leader and founder, but his absence will still hurt the Senate.

The larger question for Australian politics is whether Xenophon is correct to rate a decisive lower house role in SA ahead of being an influential player on the Senate cross bench. If so it flies in the face of the usual presumption that federal politics is always more important than state politics and thus federal MPs are always more powerful than state MPs.

The attraction of a place in the Senate is that it offers a national role, but the weakness of Senate power is that it is located in the house of review not the house of government.

A good illustration of this contradiction can be found with the Greens party. The nine Greens Senators led by Richard di Natale certainly have greater national profile than their state counterparts. But at the state level the Greens can often participate in government in Tasmania and the ACT if they win lower house seats.

Perhaps even Pauline Hanson is pondering the question raised by Xenophon's gambit as her One Nation party threatens to win a swag of seats again in the forthcoming coming Queensland election. Does she wonder whether she would be better off as party leader in Queensland compared to her current place as team leader in the Senate?

If Hanson did a Xenophon and flipped to state politics she would ensure that One Nation did even better in the state election and would become the kingmaker that Xenophon hopes to be. In Queensland she might even become Deputy Premier in a LNP-ON Coalition government.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Nick Xenophon



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Existing comments

Needless to say, Xenophon is very popular in South Australia. I like to think his contesting the State election next year is about his personal feeling for his home State and the most significant contribution he can make to the people of South Australia and not about a political desire to be SA Premier. Of course, he is a politician who knows he can achieve more in the most powerful position he can attain. Best of luck, Nick. Although Pauline Hanson is popular in Queensland I believe her support base is more about protest than personal popularity.

Pam | 09 October 2017  

“It’s the economy, stupid” Unless he is aiming for an economic portfolio (or a say in state economic performance as deputy premier) as an entitlement of a sizeable SA-Best presence in the legislative assembly, he’s not answering the right question about why South Australia needs Xenophon to come home. The state’s politics is already well-resourced with people interested in the faddy issues. And if he doesn’t get into the Executive, he’s wasted his time. As for Hanson, she’s lucky to be where she is. It would be pressing her luck, or, actually, the luck of Queenslanders who deserve able administrators to run their affairs, to entice the Sarah Palin of Australia to do more.

Roy Chen Yee | 10 October 2017  

pauline hanson - deputy premier of queensland???????????????

nick agocs | 11 October 2017  

Nick Xenophon and his parties remind me in some ways of the old Australian Democrats - a wonderful party very similar to the British Liberal Democrats - so sadly sacrificed by Cheryl Kernot. We need a sensible middle ground in Australian politics. In some ways Malcolm Turnbull represents that, but there are many Howardite Conservatives in the Liberal Party who could bring it down. The name "Abbott" is becoming a bit like "Voldemort" in some circles. Living in Queensland, I think I can say Pauline Hanson represents a certain segment of white "Old Australian" rural voters who have not benefited from either the resources or rural booms and/or are worried about certain issues such as ground water pollution. Far better having them in the political tent than joining extremist groups, although there may be some overlap. That overlap should not be exaggerated. Nick Xenophon is extremely able and can achieve things which people like Jay Weatherill, apart from retaining power, appear not to be able to do. State politics should not be the place where the terminal nonachievers go. We need people of Jeff Kennett's ability in them.

Edward Fido | 12 October 2017  

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