Showing his usual flair for impeccable timing, Nick Xenophon has exploited a slow-news Friday to get maximum exposure for his decision to quit the Senate and return to state politics.
After making a name for himself in the upper houses of the South Australian and then national parliaments, Mr Xenophon will this time run for the East Adelaide seat of Hartley in the state parliament’s lower house.
The announcement would have generated headlines whenever it was made, given the Senator’s prominent role in federal politics. But the tactic delivered the well-known publicity hound with wall-to-wall media coverage that he wouldn’t have otherwise achieved if he’d released the news during a parliamentary sitting week.
Every article and interview exploring the move has played into the master media manipulator’s hands, drawing the eyes and ears of South Australian voters to the news that Nick Xenophon is coming home to make South Australia great again.
“I’ve decided that you can’t fix South Australia’s problems in Canberra without first fixing our broken political system back home,” was the explanation offered by Mr Xenophon for the move.
This turn of events has been on the cards ever since the crossbench senator registered a new party, SA-BEST, to run in the state election that will be held in March next year.
The canny politician had already taken a strong foothold in the national parliament with his Nick Xenophon Team, securing three Senate seats as well as one in the House of Representatives at the 2016 double dissolution election. Name recognition played a large part in that achievement.
Given the success of SA-BEST also depends heavily on voters realising the party’s connection with its popular founder, it makes political good sense for Mr Xenophon to emphasise that connection by fronting the party’s campaign as a candidate as well as its leader.
Political pundits lost sight of that possibility when the Senator became entangled in the vagaries of the Constitution’s citizenship requirements for members of the national parliament.
Not that it would have mattered much if Mr Xenophon were to be ruled ineligible for election to the Senate – he would likely have been replaced in a countback by the NXT candidate on the party’s 2016 senate ticket. And that loyalist would have then been prevailed upon to resign so that Mr Xenophon could return.
Now it matters even less what the High Court decides – even if found eligible for election, Mr Xenophon will resign from the Senate and be replaced by another NXT candidate.
The move has serious ramifications, however, for both the state and federal parliaments. Mr Xenophon may well be the leader of both SA-BEST and NXT, but he can’t be in two places at once. The notorious stunt-stager and deal-maker will have to delegate responsibility for continuing those activities at the national level to his right-hand man, Senator Stirling Griff.
Stirling who, you may ask? This simple question underlines the magnitude of the task facing the NXT parliamentarians left to continue the fight in Mr Xenophon’s name. No doubt the Turnbull Government’s negotiators will also miss the Senator’s pragmatic influence on his crossbench colleagues.
So why is the country’s most popular – and effective – retail politician really giving up a pivotal role on the national stage to play reserve grade politics?
Well, because he can. But also because the time is right for the populist Mr Xenophon to ride the anti-establishment groundswell that is building within the community to reach political heights that he could never attain in federal politics.
By building upon the 20 per cent support he already has in South Australia and targeting a handful of strategic seats, Mr Xenophon could initially seize the balance of power in the South Australian parliament. Over time, he could conceivably build on that success to claim a majority of lower house seats and become premier. Why not? No-one has ever accused the man of lacking ambition.
But as that chapter opens, this one will close. Nick Xenophon’s time in Canberra will likely be remembered more for his submarine cake and Senate appearance in pyjamas than for the centrist and pragmatic influence he exercised over the parliament. He will however serve the voters of South Australia well if he exerts a similar influence over their state parliament.