Words by Idris Martin
Artwork by Adam Hamilton
I can pinpoint the moment I realised that Nick Xenophon wasn’t as great as my over-70 uncle seems to think.
It was, not coincidentally, the first time I came across the chemtrails conspiracy theory as well.
It was back in 2010 and I was keen on ignoring the dozen people gathered in front of Parliament House, when someone announced the Hon Ann Bressington MLC would be addressing the “crowd.”
I was easily impressed when I was 18, so that was enough to stop me and get me to listen.
It was only later when telling a friend about this weird protest I’d checked out, that he told me that “Batshit Bressington” (as he called her) was all about the conspiracy theories. And that she was elected on the back on Xenophon’s No Pokies ticket in 2006.
Sidenote: it’s less “no pokies” now and more “8000 pokies plus a bit more regulation.” It’s not a bad policy, but I’ve seen better. Specifically, back in 2006.
Maybe it’s a guilt by association thing, but ever since then it’s been hard not to question old mate Nick’s judgement. Call me intolerant, but I generally think it’s advisable to suss out if someone is spouting fringe conspiracy theories as fact before putting them in a winnable position on a ticket.
Which, you’ve got to remember, SA-BEST offers more than just one winnable position now. At the time of writing this, there are 33 SA-BEST candidates for the House of Assembly — there’s no small chance you could end up with an SA-BEST candidate.
The Bressington Lesson for us is, with people who spring from Xenophon’s shadow, you often don’t know what you’re going to get. For Xenophon, the lesson was investing in a better vetting mate.
With political parties, you have a general idea of what to expect — there’ll be differences, sure, but, you don’t expect a Greens MP to start railing against refugees or an ALP MP to complain about unions.
With genuine independents, they either give you something policy wise, or they often don’t see more than a fraction of the vote.
Unfortunately, Bressington shows us how those elected under the auspices of another independent often blindside all of us, Xenophon included. Even when those elected figures choose to no longer be politically associated with Xenophon.
And the score of former Xenophon-associated political figures is impressive considering it’s arguably been a one-man show.
Aside from Bressington above, you’ve got the Hon John Darley, who was also elected on a Xenophon ticket. I don’t imagine the two speak that often now though, Darley went independent last year after a reported falling out with Xenophon and has launched his own party running in this election, Advance SA.
Moving past that drama, there’s the now Senator Tim Storer. Senator Storer had what the ABC described as a “spat” with Xenophon and quit the party after he was not appointed to fill the vacancy Xenophon created when he resigned from the Senate
Awkwardly, Senator Storer ended up taking up a seat in the Senate anyway after Skye Kaskosche-Moore was declared invalidly elected in another fall to the dual-citizenship saga.
Whilst you arguably can’t hold the dual-citizenship issue against Xenophon, you do start to notice a bit of a trend of former affiliation with Xenophon.
That said, people falling out of favour isn’t necessarily a sign of bad candidate selection and wasn’t the point of the Bressington lesson. Bad vetting was, which brings us to this election.
In October when Xenophon was announcing a slate of candidates, there were issues.
Kelly Gladigau, the candidate for Hammond, was accused of racism after a Facebook post from an account she shared with her husband was unearthed, calling AFL player Adam Goodes “soft” for being offended at being called an ape. The post was deleted, and Xenophon stood by Gladigau who explained it was her husband who made the post.
This was a pretty minor issue compared to Rhys Adams.
Just a day after Adams was announced as an SA-BEST candidate, he was removed from the ticket. In another case of a Facebook post being unearthed, this one seemed to make light of domestic abuse and Xenophon rightly withdrew any support from Adams.
That Xenophon removed Adams from the ticket is a credit. That Xenophon allowed Adams onto the ticket in the first place, less so.
You could argue that Facebook posts shouldn’t be held against Xenophon, but Xenophon himself called for better vetting processes within SA-BEST. And I’m just saying, wasn’t the Bressington Lesson enough?
Candidate concerns aside (and there are more than a few concerns), it’s hard to pin down Xenophon on policy sometimes. SA-BEST has come out with some comprehensive policy now, but some of it stands in stark contrast to positions Xenophon has very publicly taken before.
Obviously, there’s the No Pokies platform mentioned earlier, but even Xenophon has admitted to a “summersault” on penalty rates. Last year, when the Fair Work Commission axed penalty rates, Xenophon seemed like he was going to stand by what the Federal Opposition called his “support of cutting penalty rates.” There was a substantial campaign led by workers and ultimately Xenophon supported the ALP and Greens position in the Senate.
Now, the Nick Xenophon Team website states they “support law reform to prevent penalty rates being cut by the Fair Work Commission.”
You might be a bit sceptical about this though, when you recall Xenophon’s 2012 Private Members Bill that sought to cut weekend penalty rates. This would have been, let’s call it what it is, shit for students who largely work in hospitality and retail.
It’s a bit hard to walk away from introducing a private members bill.
Populism is usually the word the tends to come up in political commentary around Xenophon. I’ve always preferred having a sense of what a political figure’s guiding values are. Some might call it ideology, I call it logical consistency.
Xenophon’s perceived populism only further muddles the already murky understanding we have of his candidate’s values. And with a figure like Xenophon, whose values have so publicly changed or evolved over time, it’s all the harder.
A decade ago, then Senator Xenophon was a relatively minor figure in federal politics but had long been known to the South Australian public. He was regarded by some as a political lightweight, with then Premier Mike Rann commenting he hoped Xenophon paid “serious attention” to the role Xenophon had in the balance of power.
What Xenophon described to BuzzFeed last year as his “misspent youth” as a member of the Young Liberals may have contributed to this image.
As a student at the University of Adelaide in the mid to late 70s, Xenophon was infamously elected to be Editor of On Dit by four votes, only to subsequent confess that fake votes had been included to secure his victory.
Whilst this episode may have marked the end of Xenophon’s involvement in the Liberal Party, it followed what was quite an eventful period of involvement and term as Editor. As BuzzFeed’s Alice Workman reported last year, during this time Xenophon publicly condemned progressive activism within the student union (you know, queer rights, reproductive rights, fighting apartheid South Africa).
You can check out the editorials he wrote in the Barr Smith Library or student union archive, but more interestingly, BuzzFeed also obtained a copy of legal documents from when Xenophon took the student union to the South Australian Supreme Court over their support of said movements.
Xenophon and I had wildly different misspent youths.
Different ideas of teenage behaviour aside, I cringe when I think about myself at 18, so I imagine Xenophon is legit in wishing he hadn’t done that. But I’m less sold on penalty rates. Or really, his values in general.
Like I said, it can be a bit hard to pin Xenophon down. Ideologically, you can see the relationship between historical membership of the Liberal Party and introducing a private member’s bill to cut penalty rates, but the backflip then confuses you. Populism seems like a reasonably apt description.
Casting a vote is a pretty anticlimactic thing considering how much the outcome impacts your life. When you’re in the booth, having just lined up for God knows how long and potentially having missed a democracy snag (it happens, weep for the poor souls), it might not seem like a big deal to chuck a 1 next to the party led by the affable populist.
Crucial to remember though: this is someone who experienced the Bressington Lesson and still had to boot a candidate a day after announcing them.
Scrutinise the candidate in your seat — find out what they believe and what they will fight for. Figure out if they’re happy to get by in Xenophon’s shadow or make a name in their community.
And when you’re casting your vote, make sure it’s for someone you actually want representing you, not someone who’s freaked out over fluoride in tap water.