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Flood of candidates could put majority government in Xenophon's reach

Politics

Nick Xenophon’s SA Best is poised to field candidates in more than 24 seats at the March state election – putting it in legitimate calculations to win government in its own right – after a rush of nominations in the wake of last month’s shock Newspoll result.

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The former senator has thus committed to running “around 20” candidates under his fledgling party’s banner, and has remained coy about the prospect of recruiting above that ceiling, saying consistently he was “not going to contemplate going beyond 20 until we get to 20”.

That ceiling is expected to be reached in the coming days. InDaily understands Port Adelaide Enfield mayor Gary Johanson will soon be publicly endorsed, most likely in Education Minister Susan Close’s seat of Port Adelaide.

It’s also believed Xenophon has locked in a replacement candidate for the vulnerable Liberal-held Fleurieu seat of Finniss. The original Finniss hopeful, Rhys Adams, was dumped by the party only hours after his candidacy was announced, after distasteful Facebook posts that appeared to make light of domestic violence were made public.

But InDaily has been told Xenophon and other SA Best officials have interviewed several new candidates in recent days, with up to 10 hopefuls facing an SA Best interview panel on successive nights last week.

Even if many of them are ruled out of contention, it would appear the party is gearing up for a much larger lower house tilt than originally envisaged, with suggestions dozens of hopefuls “came out of the woodwork to put their names forward” after a Newspoll published in The Australian last month put SA Best on 32 per cent of the primary vote, ahead of the Liberals (29 per cent) and Labor (27 per cent).

Xenophon did not rule out pushing beyond 24 candidates today, telling InDaily it was “too early to say that”, but emphasising that his main priority was maintaining an “equivalence” between targeting Liberal-held seats and Labor ones.

Of the 13 candidates announced so far, only five are in Labor-held seats, and two of those – Elder and Mawson – are now nominally Liberal seats under the recent boundaries redistribution.

Labor’s sole regional stronghold of Giles is also likely to be targeted by SA Best, with Whyalla councillor Tom Antonio in calculations to run against incumbent Eddie Hughes.

“I’m very conscious of the equation that it needs to be an equivalence – there needs to be as much as possible [a balance] between Labor and Liberal-held seats,” Xenophon said.

“There’s a lot of work between now and getting to 20, and we want to make an announcement within the week.”

He confirmed there had been a run on applications and expressions of interest since the poll, but added: “It’s not just about the Newspoll”.

“As the election gets closer people are sharpening their focus [and] there’s much greater interest in SA Best,” he said.

But he denied he now hoped to run more than 24 candidates on a platform that emphasised SA Best could be a mathematical chance of winning enough seats in the 47-seat parliament to govern in its own right.

“That would be seen as presumptive of me, and arrogant… presumptive and cocky, and that’s the last thing I am,” he said.

“This is going to be tough, it’s going to be tough in all seats, including in my seat of Hartley.”

It’s understood the fledgling party’s ability to fund a statewide campaign is considered the biggest stumbling block to fielding well over 30 candidates. All endorsed SA Best candidates are required to sign a ‘Deed for Candidates’ committing them to stumping up a $1000 application fee and $20,000 campaign donation, as well as an ongoing contributions from their parliamentary salary if they’re elected – though not exceeding 10 per cent of their base wage – towards “administration and operation of the [party’s] campaign”.

The deed is highly restrictive, with candidates forbidden from making “public statements” to the media without being “expressly authorised in writing by the Convener or Campaign Co-ordinator”.

Candidates are also banned from revealing information about party policies or processes – ironically given Xenophon’s policy focus on transparency in public life.

Interestingly for a party with limited resources, unsuccessful candidates are required to “destroy” all their campaign materials provided by the party for the election within 14 days of the March 17 poll.

Successful candidates who subsequently leave the party are required to “continue to support the Key Policies at all times until the date of that following Election” in 2022.

The deed states the party’s “key policies” as covering “Predatory Gambling, Government Transparency & Accountability, Australian Made, Foreign Investment and Drug Rehabilitation”.

In regard to Johanson’s prospective candidacy, Xenophon said: “I have a lot of respect for Gary Johanson and I talk to him regularly.”

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