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How Nick Xenophon Became the Guy Clive Palmer Always Wanted to Be

South Australia's Nick Xenophon Team has scored a seat in the House of Representatives, and possibly three in the state senate. It's a feat Palmer never quite managed.
July 4, 2016, 12:00am

Xeno addresses reporters from his election function Saturday night. All photos by the author.

South Australia's Nick Xenophon Team has scored a seat in the House of Representatives, and two, possibly three, in the state senate. This indicates about a third of South Australia voted for a party other than Liberal or Labor, meaning that at least in SA, the major parties have been broken. It's a huge win for the independent, and the sort of thing Clive Palmer blew millions on but never quite achieved. And yet you wouldn't have guessed it from Xeno on Saturday night.

Xeno and Rebekha Sharkie

I found him in one of the two cinemas he rented for election. He munched popcorn and bobbed between reporters as the results rolled behind him, blown up across the massive screen. One radio reporter pulled him aside and asked whether he would hold the government to ransom if he got the balance of power.

"No," he said, "It's about holding government to account."


Everyone kept asking him how he felt. But the truth was, Nick just wanted to go home. He'd been at it for over 17 hours at that point, off the back of a month in which his campaign staff had barely seen him. Even then, at about an hour to midnight, his phone was melting and he had 27 missed calls. He said he was tired and I asked if that's the way he thought victory would feel.

"I just know what hard work feels like," he said.

Rebekha Sharkie could barely walk two metres without being mobbed by reporters

Rebekha Sharkie was the other hero of the night as she took down her former boss Jamie Briggs in the safe Liberal Party seat of Mayo. From the moment she walked into the election party about an hour after it started, she was met by television cameras. Pretty soon she took her place next to Nick as they spoke live to the nation about the change that had taken place.

Michael Slattery with his mum, Pam Slattery

Not everyone got the glory though. Away from the lights of the TV cameras, Xeno's Michael Slattery was over in the darkened cinema looking for his mother, Pam, as the ABC's election coverage played on the big screen. Michael was running for the safe Labor seat of Port Adelaide and no one really thought he would make a dent. For a while things looked hopeful, but whatever chances he may have had died when the media revealed his business had gone under owing $402,000.

"It's a dirty game," he said. "I think the media has a lot to answer for. I think the media is sided in its approach. I think the media should be fairer and I see it as latched onto certain interests and that's not good for democracy."

Watching the vote roll in at the Palace Nova cinemas with free popcorn

He said he didn't know if he'd run again. He had wanted to get into politics because Holden was closing down and Arrium is falling to bits and South Australia has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Manufacturing matters, he said, but doing it a second time might be too much.

"My wife might have a thing to say about that," he said with a smile. "Might just lay back and see what things look like."


He found his mother, and as the pair walked away another reporter gave him the latest news.

"I've lost, have I?" Michael said to him. "Well, you're the first to let me know."

Xeno addressing his supporters: "We have broken the duopoly in South Australia."

It didn't matter who you spoke to among Nick Xenophon's tribe, they all said the same thing: the factories are closing up, the money is being sucked out of middle and working class communities, and their kids and grandkids have no choice but to move away. It makes them angry and it's a feeling East Coast political commentators can't grasp when they talk about the Xenophon Phenomenon. To the pundits, Nick Xenophon is a Clive Palmer type who lacks the staying power to stick it to the majors.

The difference is Clive Palmer was a blowhard from the tropics with more money than brains. Nick Xenophon is a man with a cause.

"That cause is manufacturing," Nick told me at the end of the night. "If we let [South Australia] hollow out, we will become a rust belt state. That is something we must avoid at all costs."

"We're not there yet, but we're on the edge."

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