18 March 2017
The phenomenal story of South Australian politician Nick Xenophon began exactly eleven years ago today. It was on 18 March 2006 when South Australian voters went to the polls for a state election, and about one in every five voters supported Xenophon.
Admittedly, Xenophon had been elected to State Parliament during the late 1990s, but back then he’d arguably been just another politician, narrowly elected with the help of preferences from elsewhere. From then until 2006, you’d been forgiven for ignoring him, although on various issues he’d taken stands at odds with those of the main political parties, to the point where they directed preferences away from him at election time.
With virtually everyone else directing preferences away from him, he wouldn’t have been expected back in Parliament. As an outsider visiting SA for the first time, I knew little about him, and I took the view that he wouldn’t be back.
But SA voters decided otherwise. And that night was the start of something incredible.
Xenophon only needed to win about 8.3 per cent of the statewide vote to hold his seat in that 2006 election. He ended up with a vote more than twice as big, which enabled him to get a running mate elected on his coattails. With only his principles to stand on, he was surely facing a mammoth challenge of holding his seat – or so you’d have thought. Voters in SA clearly decided that they’d support him if they couldn’t abide other political parties, especially the main ones, namely the Labor Party and the Liberal Party.
This is why I consider Xenophon’s story to have really begun in 2006, rather than at the time of his original election to Parliament. And events since then confirm this.
A year after Xenophon had that 2006 success, he ran for Federal Parliament, and won a Senate seat. When he next faced the voters, in 2013, he won almost one in every four votes across SA, and came close to getting a running mate elected. At last year’s Federal election, although support for Xenophon fell back to about one in every five votes, he held his seat again. And because he’d formed his own political party, support for him was such that several members of his party won seats as well.
It’s true that when it comes to politicians who aren’t from major parties, they form their own political parties, thinking that support for them will lead to the people running under their “umbrella” – for want of a better term. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
However, to some extent, Xenophon seems to be enjoying success here. When you compare him with the likes of Pauline Hanson and Bob Katter and Clive Palmer, all of whom formed their own political parties with the thought of getting people elected on the basis of their own popularity, he looks to be doing right what they’re doing wrong. To be fair, Hanson and Katter and Palmer all had people elected at one time or another because of their popularity, but nothing more has come of them.
In a way, the success of Xenophon has been elusive to others, although how long this situation lasts is anyone’s guess.
Hanson’s party had some success at elections, particularly in Queensland, but the elected people all fell out with Hanson after their election. Katter’s party had a few successes in Queensland, but the party’s support base seems non-existent beyond the state’s far north and west, which Katter himself represents in Federal Parliament. Palmer’s party won a few seats at election time in 2013, before virtually imploding.
I think that Xenophon is taking a steadier approach with his political party. At last year’s Federal election, the party ran candidates in a few places outside SA, but they had little support. The support for the party seems very much in SA. Xenophon probably won’t try to win over voters in other states, unless he thinks that he might have a chance.
You can contrast Xenophon’s approach with that of Hanson, who’s constantly gone across the country to gather support, but often failing to spend enough time in places where her support is strong enough to potentially win seats.
The success of Xenophon hasn’t come easy, and nor has it come by visions of grandeur as such. Having taken a steady approach, Xenophon and his party might succeed where others have failed.