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Gamechanger: Xenophon returns to state politics

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South Australian senator Nick Xenophon has announced a political bombshell which will reshape the 2018 state election battle.

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Xenophon will quit federal parliament to run in the South Australian state election, taking on the Liberal-held seat of Hartley in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs.

He told the media in Adelaide today he made the decision in despair at the state’s major political parties.

“I’m sick of seeing this contest of low expectations,” he said.

He said South Australians “deserve more” than a contest between “a government that deserves to lose and an opposition that doesn’t deserve to win”.

He argued the State Government was “tired and cynical” and had failed to deliver reliable and affordable essential services.

“And I’m dismayed that the Liberal alternative doesn’t promise anything better,” he said.

“If anything, the Liberals seem to be driven by a sense of entitlement that they are overdue for their turn in office, for the perks of power, rather than a coherent vision to make South Australia a better place.

“Both sides disappoint me to the brink of despair.”

Xenophon, who has registered a party called SA Best for the March election, said he had decided he could not fix South Australia’s problems in Canberra “without first fixing our broken political system back home”.

He said he would attempt to persuade voters “to change their rusted-on habits (of) voting for Labor and Liberal to say there is another choice”.

“There is a credible choice from the political centre,” he said.

“I think you’re seeing in Australia and across the world that people want that choice – not a choice from the extreme left or the extreme right but from the political centre.”

Liberal Leader Steven Marshall released a short statement this morning, arguing that voters risked a returned Labor Government if they vote for Xenophon.

“South Australians desperately want a change of government and the only way to ensure that happens is to vote Liberal at the state election in March,” said Marshall.

“Nick Xenophon refuses to rule out helping the Labor Party cling to power for another four years which demonstrates how much of a risk he is.

“I’m looking forward to an exciting six months.”

Xenophon, whose future in Canberra was already under a cloud given constitutional questions over his citizenship, said he would have made the announcement earlier if it wasn’t for a High Court case.

“The High Court challenge actually delayed this decision being made public,” he said.

He said he would stay in the Senate until the High Court handed down its decision, but that moving back into state politics would be “the toughest political fight of my life”.

“But I’m up for that challenge because I love our state, our people and I believe that if you are in politics you should be there to make a difference,” he said.

Xenophon said he was confident he could snare Hartley from Liberal MP Vincent Tarzia, but that he had done no polling of the seat to be sure.

“I’ve lived in the seat of Hartley for decades – I’m a true local,” said Xenophon.

“It’s my turf, it’s my side of town, and I’m very much part of the community.

“I have the energy, I have the will and I have the hunger to win this seat.”

If the outgoing senator succeeds, he is likely to hold the balance of power – and be political kingmaker – in the event of hung parliament in March.

It was “too early to say” on what basis he would support either major party to form government, but “whichever side we support, we will be extracting a high price of transparency, of accountability, of decency”.

“We need to see the outcome of the election in terms of who wins the most seats, who wins the most votes.

“(But) we don’t want business-as-usual in this state.”

Liberal Party Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said if Xenophon believes things have “got so bad” in South Australia, he should commit to supporting a Marshall Government in the event of a hung parliament.

“Why won’t he guarantee that he would back a change of government in South Australia … if things have got so bad?” said Birmingham.

“South Australia needs strong and stable government.

“Stephen Marshall is the best (person) to do that (… and) he’ll be able to do that best in majority government.”

Xenophon said that he would attempt to move into the South Australian parliament for the same reason he moved out of it, into the Senate, a decade ago.

“My motivation has always been ‘how do you maximise the benefit for South Australia’,” said Xenophon.

“That’s why I went from the State Parliament to the federal parliament a decade ago – to get results.

“I can actually achieve much more at a state level (now), still working with my federal colleagues.

“There is a pay cut involved going into state parliament – that doesn’t worry me.”

He ruled out accepting any cabinet position in a Labor or Liberal Government and promised to apply a “blowtorch” to the executive branch of government.

“The worst thing you can do is to take up a cabinet position – you’re inside the tent (if you do that),” he told reporters.

“Geoff Brock, Martin Hamilton-Smith all made big mistakes by going into cabinet … (because a cabinet position) really would compromise you.

“We want to be a fearless watchdog of whomever is in power … we want to hold the blowtorch to them – we want to hold them to account.”

Xenophon warned the Labor and Liberal parties “dirty” election campaign tactics in the leadup to the March poll would be “counterproductive” to their changes of forming minority government if voters return a hung parliament.

He said that in return support to form any minority government, he would be demanding “sweeping” reforms to South Australia’s institutions of power.

He said these would include stronger freedom of information laws and a more rigorous budget estimates process in the State Parliament.

“It is a joke, for instance that your state parliament estimates process lasts for two weeks,” he said.

“Ministers can veto public servants as to who answers (questions) the upper house isn’t included.”

He told InDaily he would also be angling for more resources for the State Ombudsman and the coroner, and more sitting weeks in parliament.

In a statement this morning, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said her party would field a strong candidate in the seat of Hartley; however the Greens’ “focus” was on ensuring Tammy Franks is returned to the Legislative Council.

“We need more non-major party MPs in lower houses chambers across the country,” said Hanson-Young.

“More diversity in houses of Government is good for democracy.

“The Greens will fill a strong candidate in the seat of Hartley and our focus remains on ensuring Greens MLC Tammy Franks is returned to the Upper House in March next year.”

Hanson-Young added that “Nick Xenophon has made a valued contribution to the Senate throughout his federal career.”

“We have worked well together fighting for local jobs and protecting the Murray, and while he and I were not on the same side on all issues, we share a passion for South Australia.

“While he leaves big shoes to fill, I’m determined that the Greens will ensure that South Australia continues to have a strong alternative voice in the Senate and the federal parliament.”

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