Why Xenophon is no alternative to a dismal political establishment
Words by Daniel Neser
If you’re looking for substantive change for the better, placing your hopes in the upcoming state election is guaranteed to leave you sorely disappointed. Sure, the election itself is (based on current polling) poised to be one of the most disruptive to party politics in this state for a long time. But if it all feels a bit familiar, it’s because the core politics are unchanged.
For years South Australia has faced a familiar story. An incumbent Labor Party standing for politics as usual, a Liberal Party offering an avowedly pro-business and conservative agenda with no charisma. With this scenario, enthusiasm for these parties has always been muted. Now, in the context of a longer-term economic malaise and a series of crises in government services, voters appear to be leaving the major parties in their tens of thousands.
Despite much-hyped health care upgrades, the Weatherill government has overseen a series of scandals for inadequate care facilities, continuous stories of the ramping of ambulances at hospitals and an increasing share of private control over the health care sector. The TAFE revelations showed the outcome of years of funding cuts: TAFE courses were so poorly resourced the certificates failed a series of audits, meaning thousands will have to re-study to get their qualifications. The manufacturing industry has been allowed to die without any feasible replacement, and our relatively high unemployment is especially hitting the north and the west of Adelaide.
When the Labor government dropped their plans for a popular but mild increase in taxation on the big banks, no-one was much surprised. Neither was there such an uproar when they proposed a new R&D scheme for international tech companies. This new bill would allow all standing state laws (except aboriginal heritage protection laws) to be bypassed upon request from companies promising to do research here. They emailed copies of the Bill out to Google, Facebook, Tesla and the like, in SA’s very own bargain bin TV ad; you can imagine the ministers of this Labor government ending the ad with “… and if you want we’ll even throw out the workers’ rights laws! Child protection laws? Out the window! Call us today.” They backed down on it, someone probably questioned the (electoral) need for industrial tech research that breaks standing child protection laws.
That’s because this is politics as usual in this state. A few infrastructure projects dot an increasingly barren landscape; pro-business policies are chased very far down the rabbit hole, while for the rest of us things are going backwards in a real sense. Dissatisfaction has led to an opening, which would usually be filled by the Opposition come election time. But the Liberals remain unpopular and untrusted due to the impact of the federal party on local politics and their own record. South Australians have never quite forgiven them for sneaking into state government in the 90’s, privatising our energy grid (among other things) and getting booted out. This is a favourite of Labor to go on the attack about, but they’ve done nothing to reverse private ownership of energy; rather than address all the key problems of high prices and terrible maintenance caused by privatisation, all their techno-utopian proposals further entrench private control.
Hence the opening for a political outsider. This is a process that has been occurring around the world: decline or collapse of the traditional parties of the centre under challenge from an “anti-establishment” force. In the South Australian context, the discrediting of Labor and the Liberals has allowed Nick Xenophon and his new electoral formation SA-BEST to appeal to many.
This challenge is not going to change anything in a positive way. His politics do not depart from the Liberals’ core platform. He is a former Liberal himself, coming from the same milieu of elitist, individualist Liberal student politicians. His rigged election to this magazine’s editorial board as a Liberal student underscores his born-to-rule entitlement. Since leaving the Liberals, he entered state politics on an independent basis with a single issue “no pokies” platform. His disagreement with the Liberals in this state is that he thinks Liberal-style politics can be popular, but not under the formation of the Liberal party itself.
He’s traded on his independent footing to appear as an SA-focused pragmatist, extracting some reforms from federal politics for South Australia in deals with the Liberals. So, for all the anti-union legislation and pro-Murdoch media laws he’s supported (amongst other shockers), he essentially sells his vote in exchange for building his own brand. For example, he guaranteed the military-industrial complex that submarine manufacture would take place in SA. This has given him the veneer of a battler for SA, while in reality he agrees with the project that the Liberals have.
This image would slip if he was significantly challenged from other forces. It would be easy to demonstrate his opportunism if there were real forces campaigning on the basis of fixing the inadequate health care system or major reforms tackling unemployment and stagnating wages or taking on the excesses of the rich. But forces potentially capable of this, such as the Labor Party, are unable because it would mean attacking their own legacy and their role as architects of the situation we’re in. You can only demonstrate that Xenophon’s “take-it-issue-by-issue” approach simply means being unprincipled and right-wing, if you have principles of fighting for the rights of ordinary people yourself.
We need a shake-up, but not the one Xenophon is offering. There is plenty of space for a political force to seriously take up the mantle of fighting in principle for the rights and living standards of ordinary people, willing to cop the blowback from the big end of town and official politics. There are many real issues to stake out an uncompromising position on, but this election we will not see that. Even “no pokies” Nick will backflip on his pet issue and drop his opposition to pokies. For us, it is important to oppose the potential popularisation of Liberal-style politics through Xenophon, and recognise that his success will only make things worse.