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Peeking behind the Xenophon facade, by his unauthorised biographer

Opinion

Despite being the most media-friendly politician in Australia, Nick Xenophon remains an enigma. Journalist Robbie Brechin, who is writing an unauthorised biography of the SA Best leader, asks: who is Nick Xenophon?

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We love the idea of Peter Pan.

Step forward Nick Xenophon, who turned 59 in January but remains forever young with that boyish grin and the outrageous performances.

As a former girlfriend recalled: “He’s very charming, very charismatic. And when you turn on the switch, a thousand watts…”

Free-spirited, ready with a gag or a mischievous stunt. Spending his never-ending childhood having adventures on the island of Neverland.

No need for Botox. No worries about moving into horrible aged care facilities.

But what is the reality of someone who refuses to grow up, or can’t?

In the adult world, Pete Pans can be entertaining, great mates at a party.

And, according to Channel 7’s political reporter Mike Smithson, the Xenophon Christmas parties are rather more successful than those held by Labor or Liberal.

But there is a downside.

Peter Pans tend to have short attention spans. Long-term relationships of all kinds are hazardous.

They are more interested in immediate gratification than the long hard slog it takes to make real and lasting change in the world

The following snapshot of the fly-in, fly-out Xenophon from 2011 is more common than some of his non-media fans might believe.

The then Senator is on a typical mission. Someone, or something, needs saving.

Today, the target is precious farmland at Seaford Heights, south of Adelaide.

Xenophon walks in with shovel and gumboots, ready to dig dirt – in a good way. He wants to maximise publicity –for himself, and, if possible, the cause of the moment.

Groundswell SA, a lobbying group, had created Guerilla Gardening to highlight the folly of building yet another housing estate on fertile ground.

InDaily wine writer and Drinkster blogger Philip White chuckles at the memory: “Nick starts digging away with that shovel. Suddenly, he’s talking to the TV cameras.

“Then he gets together with a few of the children, plants a few broad beans and he’s off.

“He took all the credit for what we had been working towards for 18 months.

“We hadn’t seen him before and didn’t see him afterwards.”

Sadly, the Guerilla Gardeners lost the fight.

Meanwhile, Xenophon continues on his merry way.

Performing stunts. Bollywood here I come. Pulling rabbits out of hats. Yet somehow standing still. And managing to appear and disappear with equal alacrity.

To say that acting is a massive part of the Xenophon toolbox is not necessarily to suggest he has no substance.

Melbourne-based journalist Anne Manne spent several days with Xenophon in 2015 for a profile published in The Monthly.

She told me: “There’s something playful, and something as if he’s acting all the time.

“He is playing the role of the modest ingénue; there’s something quite performative. Most of us have a self that is partly constructed – it can be a protective thing to keep parts of ourselves private.

“But I don’t see him as a fraud, more that he dramatises and visibly enacts, even exaggerated real qualities that he knows the electorate likes – he’s channelled that.

“He made himself a brand long before that was a term.”

Even his enemies agree Xenophon is highly intelligent, works stupid hours to help the downtrodden and needy, is an outstanding communicator and marketer. (It’s the stunts, stupid.)

He has a rare ability to grasp complex issues and turn them into words that resonate with people who are not steeped in politics.

On a personal level, there is a generous, empathetic side to him that makes him a terrific mentor.

Jacqui Lambie adores him. The Tasmanian ex-Senator remembers how he was there for her in Canberra, taking her under his wing, to the extent that they now have a big brother, kid-sister relationship.

“He’s a tight-arse,” she says, affectionately. On their first “date” – she says they have never been romantically involved – Xenophon took her to KFC.

So what might be amiss?

You have to ask yourself why he is so ostentatious with his parsimony.

Yes, it is smart to differentiate yourself from decision-makers who wear $5000 suits and love the helicopter or limousine life using OPM – other people’s money.

Yet what do we make of his entry in the Notification of Alteration of Interests Declared for the Senate, year 2012? “Upgrade from economy to business on QF32 Jakarta-Sydney. Despite the wonderful service I felt I didn’t belong there and went back to economy class within the hour.”

Who else but Xenophon would bother with such exaggerated virtue signalling? Is this the little boy trying too hard to please that may well exist within someone who was – at Prince Alfred College – described as nondescript and was bullied?

That same attention to detail was not evident when he omitted to mention he was a director/secretary of his father Theo Xenophou’s property development firm when it was embroiled in controversy over an alleged $2.5m Australian Tax Office debt (an “embarrassing oversight”, he said at the time).

Writer Manne was treated to the customary Mr X low-budget musical.

But she takes a positive view, overall: “I didn’t think Xenophon was performing poverty when he drove a Kia car and wore cheap suits,” she says.

“Anyone thinking about the issue for a moment would realise with a politician’s salary and superannuation that he is not a poor man.

“Instead what Nick is dramatising and highlighting is a real quality of frugality – personal and public.

“He wants people to think he is as careful with taxpayers’ money as he is with his own. It is the opposite of someone who exploits the system, for example using travel allowances illegitimately. “

Certainly, Xenophon’s stunts have endeared him to a jaded, disillusioned electorate. The sight of a gleeful Xenophon racing around in a toy BMW to illustrate the evil of pollies’ perks. The enlistment of a giraffe to prove he could “stick his neck out”.

But how much does his flair for “show” obscure the nitty gritty of “business”?

How much is it an addiction to adrenaline? The quick fix of a rush to the head, the sound of applause. And then the loneliness of the clown offstage?

Chris Kenny, a columnist with The Australian, has watched Xenophon from the start.

“I think the great condemnation for Xenophon, in the end, is that he’s been clever enough to win all this support and to get himself into balance of power situations. But he’s never really done anything with it. There’s nothing you can point to which says: ‘this is what Nick Xenophon has achieved’.”

Mike Smithson says he is no closer to knowing Xenophon the person today than he was 21 years ago, which is unusual in SA’s small political planet.

“I think Xenophon was really found wanting at the Press Club leader’s debate,” Smithson said.

“(Premier Jay) Weatherill and (Opposition leader Steven) Marshall can see straight through him.

“Whereas a lot of people, especially your average punter in the street, can’t see through him at all. They just see the Nick that Nick wants them to see.

“But Nick knew, sitting on stage, that these guys know all of his weaknesses and there are plenty of them and they exploited them to the max.”

A few weeks ago, Xenophon was being hailed as a possible Premier – at the very least as a holder of the balance of power after the March 17 election.

Former ALP heavyweight Graham Richardson touted him as arguably the most interesting politician in Australia.

Veteran political pundit, Emeritus professor Dean Jaensch, says Xenophon has achieved hitherto unattainable heights as an independent.

“He has done something that nobody else has done in the history of South Australia, and that’s produce a support base for about 30 per cent of the voters,” he notes.

“That has never happened, in my experience, before. Nobody has ever got anywhere near that.”

But, as with so many others who have been in the heady, some say dizzy-making orbit of the Xenophon populist phenomenon, Jaensch is also baffled.

“I think Nick really is a driven man,” he says. “I’ve never completely worked out what the drive is.

“He gives me the impression he’s working towards something. I’ve never known what that something is.”

And Smithson says: “He wants power, but he doesn’t really know what to do with it.”

An ex-staffer sums up in a way that presents the Xenophon that is easy to love but tantalisingly difficult to pin down.

“Pretty much what you see is what you get. There is no secret lair or ulterior motive. I think he does care.

“Nick never attacks. He never insults It makes you want to work with him.

“He is neurotic, he’s sometimes manic. He’s got his idea of what the agenda is but you usually don’t know until the last minute.”

I have known Xenophon for a couple of decades, at least.

While I was a working journalist, we had an easy, cheeky relationship.

When I left ABC radio, that altered. So what? I had no power any more and I have ignored a very large contact list.

But I felt a rare bond and kept texting him light-heartedly.

Blank.

When I finally got hold of him to say I was thinking of writing his biography, preferably unauthorised as he was such a “media tart”, Xenophon was coy, claiming to be “not interesting enough”.

Then he stopped responding to texts, emails or calls.

It was only when I began approaching former staffers and the like for interviews that I got an out-of-the-blue call one evening.

What struck most was his other-worldly rasping tone. I’d never heard Xenophon like this, voice quivering.

He hadn’t been avoiding me, Xenophon said. There was “nothing malicious” about it; he had just been so crazily busy. I told him I didn’t buy what he was selling. Was he trying to shut me down? “No, of course not”.

He then veered into a mention of an ex-lover, though his point in bringing her up was lost on me.

As he spoke to me that evening, Xenophon was not the assured, articulate man I had dealt with before. It was not an easy call to take.

The more I insisted the biography project would go ahead regardless, the more anguished he sounded.

Despite a later text promising to call me, I have not since heard from the most approachable politician in the country.

Robbie Brechin is a veteran journalist who has worked for The Advertiser, The News, Channel Seven and, most recently, ABC Radio Adelaide.

He is writing an “impartial, no-holds-barred examination” of Nick Xenophon.

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