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The Election Trilogy: no-one knows how this will play out

Opinion

With an unpredictable election looming in just over two weeks, former Labor minister Patrick Conlon is fascinated by what will happen to the Xenophon factor in the months to come.

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In Isaac Asimov’s famous sci fi work, the Foundation Trilogy, a brilliant scientist, Hari Seldon, develops a mathematical system for predicting the broad sweep and movement of future events. His system successfully guides a world run by his adherents until the arrival of a uniquely gifted individual, the Mule. The Mule completely disrupts the predicted flow of events and it is only after his death that Seldon’s successors can return to plotting the future.

Nick Xenophon is the Mule of our times. He brings a unique disruption of the South Australian two party political system. No other individual could begin to present the threat to the system Xenophon does. And, as with the fictional character, the disruption will pass when the individual does.

We have never seen a political opportunist to equal Xenophon. His ability to dance across the surface of an issue is like those insects that race over ponds held up by the surface tension of the water. He is tethered to no person and no one thing. He appears suddenly on a popular cause with an attention-demanding stunt then is off again before the applause turns to analysis. This talent has allowed him to steal votes away from both sides of politics because he can never quite be nailed down as hurting one side or the other.

He is sharply intelligent. His status as a story factory has given him some special dispensation from the media. Many in the media of course deny this, but if Marshall or Weatherill had made that cheesy video their campaigns and probably their careers would be over. With Xenophon it’s apparently a sign of his genius.

But while this campaign is a unique challenge to the two-party system, it also changes everything for Xenophon. The secret of his success so far has been not to have too much of it. Xenophon was nervous at the last federal election when it looked like Mayo, won by Xenophon’s team, might be the seat that decided government. He did not want to have to alienate one part of his base by choosing a side. This time, however, he will be seen to have failed if he does not win enough seats at least to determine which party forms government. If Xenophon does win enough seats he will have a Rubicon to cross.

Even suggesting that it is possible to identify the seats that will decide the election is a brave call.

This election will turn largely upon which major party handles best the Xenophon disruption. In recent elections, to succeed a party needed not only a good broadcast campaign but also good narrowcast, seat by seat, campaigns. Add to this now the need for shrewd tactical decisions about preference arrangements, seat by seat. It is very difficult to predict outcomes in a seat where three candidates have a substantial vote and particularly where the difference between second and third is tight. In some seats the first eliminated minor candidate with a per cent or two might nudge someone from third, that is, losing, to second, which might mean winning.

Xenophon’s vote seat by seat is likely to be volatile. Xenophon has thrown together a team of candidates with less vetting than a major party would think wise. The individual candidates will vary dramatically in performance and it is likely that facts emerge about individuals that are unhelpful in an election campaign. Given that quantitative polling has itself been unreliable, relying on this week’s polls to predict a seat result is an exercise in extreme optimism. Even suggesting that it is possible to identify the seats that will decide the election is a brave call.

A further challenge in predicting the future is the very nature of the Xenophon team. The only thing that can be said to bind them together is political opportunism. There is simply no guiding ideology in the Xenophon political brand. There seems to be a fair smattering of former liberals disappointed in one way or another by the party and a few other malcontents who have run under various colours but it seems the only requirement to be part of the team is the capacity to pay your way and even that can be waived in Nick’s wisdom. Xenophon is already responsible for a South Australian party that has broken away from him. Who would this new group support in a hung parliament? Can Xenophon control them? Would they even all go the same way? (Forget the nonsense that the Libs won’t do a deal with Xenophon. No-one in their right mind believes that.)

The only thing that holds the Xenophon vote together is Xenophon himself.

The most likely outcome of this election is that neither major party achieves a majority. It is likely that Brock will continue to hold his seat as an independent. Frances Bedford, Duncan McFetridge and, in what to me is one of the most bizarre features of an already bizarre political landscape, Troy Bell, are said to be chances to win as independents. Xenophon will win seats but the extent will depend on how much his vote falls away and on complex preference deals.

What can be said for the Liberals is that it is epically difficult for any party to win five successive terms of government. What can be said for Labor is that this sort of seat by seat tactical campaigning is its bread and butter and that it has a proven track record in dealing with independents. What I can’t tell you is which factor will be the determining one.

The thing that is fascinating about the Xenophon phenomenon is the future. The only thing that holds the Xenophon vote together is Xenophon himself. It is very unlikely that Xenophon will have a successor in his group with the unique ability to carve votes out of both major parties. When Xenophon leaves the scene there will be a large number of votes looking for a new home. Were I running a major party I would be planning now how to make sure those votes come safely back home.

In the meantime, grab the biggest bucket of popcorn you can find and enjoy the least predictable election in living memory.

Patrick Conlon was a minister in the Weatherill and Rann governments.

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