I'm sitting in Yianni's Yiros in Adelaide, half-watching the TVs playing repeats of the William Shatner cop show TJ Hooker, when Nick Xenophon runs in. He apologises for being late, and explains he had to go to a chiropractor for his neck. Then he goes to greet the business owners, who he clearly knows very, very well. It's not surprising as posters for Xenophon line the walls and windows.
Xenophon has risen from a South Australian Independent Senator to become the head of his own party—the aptly named Nick Xenophon Team. They're currently poised to gain a number of seats in the House and the Senate, that will put Xenophon in a very powerful position.
We get a yiro each. Nick goes with the lamb option, and we sit down to eat.
"You first announced your candidacy at the zoo," I say, "standing in front of the giraffes and saying you would stick your neck out for South Australia. You later led a mule down Rundle Mall to demonstrate your stubbornness. I have to know, what does the lamb represent?"
Nick thinks about this, muching. "It represents lunch."
I've been driving around the country a lot, and I have to say, most of the election advertising I've seen is fairly moderate. But that changed soon I entered Adelaide. Here, every single electricity poll has a minimum of two candidate placards. When I say "every," I don't mean "quite a lot." I mean literally every single one. The battle in Adelaide is more full-on than anywhere else in Australia.
"Yeah, it's pretty intense," Nick says. "I'm being targeted by the major parties. Last night, Penny Wong and Christopher Pyne were on a unity ticket on 7.30. They're worried about the two-party duopoly. It's a cosy little club and it's breaking down, and it's breaking down because people get their information from alternative sources nowadays, like VICE."
"Would it be fair to describe you as a radical moderate?" I ask. "Or maybe an extreme centrist?"
"Noel Pearson, who I have a lot of admiration for, has described me as a radical centrist," says Nick. "I'm not sure what that means. It might be radical to the major parties, but most people seem to be okay with it. It's really a case of trying to do things a bit differently in politics. This left and right, them and us, tribal, toxic politics, I think people are sick of it. I mean, if only Christopher Pyne and Penny Wong could work together and solve their problems rather than spending their energy attacking me."
The motivation for Pyne and Wong, both South Australians, to go on the attack against the NXT is that it's been drawing its votes equally from the Labor and Liberal parties. "Compared to the rest of the world," I say, "our two major parties are very close together on the ideological spectrum. How do you find space between them?"
"There is space between them for me, because it's almost as though they've gone off on a tangent," Nick says. "Things like government procurement laws. It's $59 billion a year we spend on buying goods and services, but there's no Buy Australian First policy." Nick lifts his leg up from the table to show me his shoes. "I've got this pair of boots here from Rossi's, and they miss out on the Defence Contract because the boots get made in Indonesia. The price difference is only 10–15 percent. We should have got them made here."
"But if you're chipping away at Labor and Liberal from the centre," I say, "wouldn't that have the opposite effect to the one you want? Won't that push them more to the left and right, if their centrist candidates are being defeated by you?"
"There's something here that defies ideology," Nick says. "It's almost as though they're part of the political elite. They don't get it, that we're worried about trade deals that compromise our national sovereignty, and that we don't negotiate these deals well. We're lousy at negotiating them. They don't get that people are genuinely worried about their jobs."
I feel this is a good moment to jump into something that I've been wondering for a while. That is, although the NXT's position on certain issues are well-known, I'm not clear on what it is the party stands for. "We know what Labor stands for, we know what the Liberals stand for, what the Greens and the Nationals stand for. What does the Nick Xenophon Team stand for?"
"How many words have I got?" he asks.
"Well, the more succinct the better."
Nick thinks for a moment, then says: "'The fair go with no BS.' That succinct enough?"
"And that's a fair go for workers, for business…?"
"A fair go for the battlers," he says. "And small businesses are battlers too."
That's all it's about, guys. I tell him about a Malcolm Turnbull speech I attended a couple of weeks ago, and how Turnbull's warnings of a Labor-Greens alliance had evolved to a Labor-Greens-Independents-Nick Xenophon alliance. "You are now the face of what the Libs are warning Australia of," I say. "The minority government. What's your view on them? Can they be effective, and would it be a bad thing if we got one?" "If you negotiate," he says, "if you drag parties to the political centre, it would actually be a good thing. If you bring the major parties closer to mainstream Australia, middle Australia, rather than the political elites, the big end of town, big business, big unions, then it's a good thing." As we finish up lunch, I mention the not-insignificant number of anti-Xenophon articles The Australian has been running this election, and point to my favourite: that if he gets elected, it will cost taxpayers $100 billion.
"Well," he says, "it's a beat up that Mike Tyson would be proud of."
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