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Has Xenophon over-reached?

Opinion

Nick Xenophon's broadening political ambition may be his undoing. And if he fails badly, everyone will lose, writes former Liberal minister Mark Brindal.

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In most of the world’s democracies, voters are disillusioned and drifting away from traditional major parties. They’re attracted to strongmen who claim to have easy solutions to our problems or to prophets who blame the economic rationalist philosophy of the last half-century for their struggles. Generally, such figures – Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders – have been outliers on the left or right of mainstream discourse.

In Australia, there is diminishing confidence in the system’s capacity to deliver voters the good government they deserve. Electors are losing faith that a two-party system can deliver them a good life and fair division of the spoils. Voters hate the way in which the political game is played. We, too, have looked beyond our established parties: One Nation and the Greens, when they look credible, have shown they can increase their vote.

The situation in the 2018 South Australian election differs. We have a credible alternative from the political centre instead of the political right or left. Over two decades Nick Xenophon has progressed from political accident to possible premier – a true metamorphosis from political grub to butterfly.

Mr X has achieved this through purpose and consistency and by seeming to be accessible to Menzies’ “forgotten people”: he expresses their fears and identifies their problems. He seems selfless; not in the game for what he can take out.

When Xenophon announced that he would run for the SA parliament it seemed that his new party with the average punter in mind would force the major parties towards a more empathic form of governing. Importantly, for many South Australians, its leader could be relied upon to keep the other bastards honest.

Xenophon has confirmed that the reaction to the announcement of his return to state politics surprised him. Around September 2017, in a conversation with Liberal leader Steven Marshall, Xenophon told him SA Best would stand in only four to six seats, split evenly between Liberal and Labor. But he has said the “equation changed” after he decided to stand in Hartley.

Xenophon subsequently stated that he would field around 20 candidates, presumably expecting to win six or eight. If so, his goal had to be an alliance with whichever major party would accept his reform agenda.

If Xenophon does fall to Earth, it will be truly sad for South Australian politics.

Unlike the majors, who have the means and funding to conduct market research, Xenophon must rely on publically commissioned polls. While the ALP and the Libs can appear one step in front, Xenophon remains reactive. He remains captive to and dependent upon the media.

Polling suggested that electors embraced the concept of Xenophon being the power to reckon with in parliament and forcing the adoption of much-needed change. But it is possible that this may lead to the undoing of his SA Best party.

As he surged in the polls, Xenophon’s response was to canvass for more candidates to stand in ever more seats. Sometimes his quest has taken on the appearance of a scramble tinged with desperation as SA Best tries to locate suitable candidates in the short time before the election and to persuade them to stand.

The challenge of finding a team quickly has been compounded by the obvious question: “How would Nick govern if he was to win the most seats?” He must simultaneously find candidates and develop policy across the gamut of government.

A few weeks ago, Xenophon could afford to portray himself as a man of principle; now he must also be a man of broad policies while he struggles to find a team that could credibly deliver those objectives.

Who is SA Best’s spokesperson for education, transport, and everything else? Nick Xenophon. And he is not in a position, only five weeks from the election, to offer credible alternatives.

Xenophon is inexperienced in lower house campaigning. He is yet to show his party is able to conduct a campaign underpinned by clinical planning, informed by the needs of the electorate and with insight into the strengths and weaknesses of SA Best and its opponents. SA can only hope that Xenophon heeds Aesop’s fable about the dog with a bone.

Perhaps this inexperience is why Xenophon’s campaign is starting to look untidy, rushed, and lacking coherence. Recent polls suggest some South Australian voters are drifting away. If the polls are accurate, ill-conceived “mission creep” may be the undoing of Mr X.

Xenophon alone knows the nature of his original ambition. If it was more humble than it now appears, he risks becoming the modern day Icarus who ignored the danger of trying to fly too close to the sun and without the equipment needed to keep him safe.

If Xenophon does fall to Earth, it will be truly sad for South Australian politics. He is a very rare beast indeed. Our state is fortunate to have the choice of an additional party positioned in the sensible centre. Real choice can never be a bad thing in a democracy. This is a truly unusual opportunity.

If Nick fails badly, that failure will entrench and reinforce the divine right arrogance of the duopoly. Nothing will change except to make it harder for any alternative like him to come along soon.

The bell will toll for us all.

Mark Brindal was a Liberal member of the South Australian Parliament from 1989 to 2006, and was Minister for Water Resources, Local Government, Youth and Employment and Training during the Olsen and Kerin governments.

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