Dispatches from the radical centre

by Dennis Atkins

SOUTH AUSTRALIANS HAVE a reputation for being a little bit up themselves. They speak with soft-toned vowels. They boast of their free-settler status, pride themselves as being the progressive heart of the nation and proclaim dominance in the arts, viticulture and cuisine. In Queensland, which is Australia’s yin to the yang of South Australia, they say there’s no snob like a South Australian snob. Through this mix of pride and suffering, the peers down long noses, South Australians don’t worry too much, unless you talk to them about their economy. That’s when they bristle, because it’s always been a fragile entity – always looking for the next big project, the next big thing to carry their social and artistic ambitions into the future.

Many east-coast commentators have scorned South Australia for having a cargo-cult mentality, whether it was the defence industries of Woomera more than a century ago, the now almost defunct auto and white goods industries of more recent decades, the Roxby Downs mega mine or, in its latest iteration, the multi-billion dollar submarine contract. It’s no surprise that, as the auto industry was slowly being shut down, state Labor governments had a decade-long ‘Thinker in Residence’ program – there were twenty-five of them – who did all manner of things from expanding the tram system to promoting a better and more cohesive design culture.

One other thing South Australians can boast of as being different is a political culture that bucks trends. For almost half a century, South Australia has had an independent streak in its polity, but it’s not like that seen elsewhere. Queensland has its right-wing populists such as Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party, Clive Palmer’s United Party and Bob Katter’s eponymous party – all of whom have won parliamentary seats in Brisbane and Canberra during the past twenty years. In South Australia, meanwhile, this maverick trend has grown from the centre, with its modern appearance beginning in the early 1970s when the Liberal Movement broke from the traditionally conservative Liberal and Country League, and is still apparent today with the strongest new force the state has seen, the Nick Xenophon Team, outpolling Labor and taking seats from both major parties at the 2016 election.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence of geography that a state with a radical centrist streak is in the centre of the nation, but the roots are deeper. From being the first place in the world to give women universal suffrage in 1895 – Australia was the first nation to do so a year after federation in 1901 – the state was also a trendsetter in education policy, setting up church-backed schools to complement the state system. Long-serving conservative Premier Tom Playford was a statist, promoting and backing state-owned utilities – such as a nation-leading power grid –and establishing one of the best public housing programs in the country. The state also played a prominent role in assisting and protecting manufacturing. It’s no surprise it has been the scene of a moderate independent political tendency, such as we now see with Xenophon.

Xenophon sees the support for his own party as an ongoing tradition, and part of a heritage that sets South Australia apart. ‘South Australians have always been receptive to new ideas, and we have seen our state as an incubator to new ideas,’ Xenophon tells Griffith Review as he scurries through the streets of Adelaide, always on the go and always with a to-do list. ‘Our share of the national population has slipped from about 10 per cent to 7 per cent, but we still manage to produce new ideas and we are looked to by those who are trialling trends and products.’

According to Xenophon, for decades companies would test products on consumers in the city known as the Athens of the South – taking national gambles on those that won favour and junking those that received the thumbs down. ‘Maybe we are an incubator for democracy,’ muses Xenophon, continuing to riff the thought with a suggestion that other, more participatory political models could be trialled, not just one that cracks open the two-party system. This is already happening through a Better Together program, kicked off three years ago by Jay Weatherill’s Labor government. This has seen three annual citizens’ juries look at specific policy sets, such as ways to share the roads safely, and has developed a number of initiatives including Simplify, which asks the public to send in ideas to cut or reduce regulation.

The father of this modern centrist streak in South Australian politics is Steele Hall, who was premier of the state for just over two years, from April 1968 to June 1970. He is unique in Australian politics because he effectively legislated himself out of office, tossing out the so-called ‘playmander’ that had kept the Liberal Country League in power for about forty years, and introducing the first one-vote/one-value electoral system. The gerrymander had the state divided into just thirteen metropolitan seats, but twenty-six in the often sparsely populated country districts. Steele Hall expressed his embarrassment after being elected in 1968 despite having scored just 43.8 per cent of the popular vote against Labor’s 52 per cent. Hall was a great proponent of social change – not just enacting electoral reform but also making great leaps forward in welfare, Aboriginal affairs and the regulation of abortion.

The Hall government also presided over the first decriminalisation of homosexuality in Australia – a cause led by Murray Hill, a Legislative Council member and father of Robert Hill, who was a successful Liberal senator and minister in the Howard government. Popular myth has Don Dunstan’s government – which succeeded Hall – liberalising homosexual laws, but what the Labor Attorney-General Peter Duncan did was provide greater rights to gay people. The first to knock the bricks out of the wall was Hill, with the full and enthusiastic backing of Hall.

The electoral reform Hall put through parliament cost him the subsequent election, but his taste for independence didn’t fade. He resigned from the Liberal Country League after two years as Opposition leader, saying the party had ‘lost its idealism and forgotten its purpose for existence’. Hall formed the Liberal Movement, which had three parliamentarians: Hall and Robin Millhouse in the Assembly and Martin Cameron in the Legislative Council. Xenophon is one of many South Australians who remember Hall’s role in the history of his state and its place in national politics – Hall went on to serve three years in the Senate and fifteen years in the House of Representatives. ‘I think he was one of the greats of all time,’ says Xenophon.

Xenophon nominates Hall as not just his favourite South Australian politician but also the most underrated in the last eighty years. ‘He was an incredibly principled modernist who reformed the electoral system to his direct disadvantage. He was a visionary who was the father of the now world-renowned Festival Theatre that’s at the heart of Adelaide’s arts heritage,’ says Xenophon. ‘His success – and his long-term popularity whenever he ran for office – was because he was a centrist, someone who instinctively knew where everyday South Australians stood on issues and never got out ahead of the people. He banned Scientology, knowing it was a threat to religion and freedom.’

South Australia was also a stronghold of the Australian Democrats from the time the late Don Chipp set up his ‘keep the bastards honest’ party in 1977 until it disappeared thirty years later. Hall’s Liberal Movement – now having added the word ‘new’ to its banner – merged with the Democrats, giving it a local MP in Millhouse, and over the coming decades a trio of female leaders – Janine Haines, Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja. Support for the Australian Democrats was always strongest around Adelaide, although the party only managed to get more than a 10 per cent share of the national vote in its debut showing in 1977 and the year of John Howard’s great win, 1996.

Xenophon followed in this tradition of occupying the radical centre after John Bannon’s Labor government legalised poker machines more than twenty years ago, and the young Adelaide lawyer – who looks and behaves like a cross between the American consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Peter Falk’s Columbo – found himself dealing with more and more casualties of this new way to take people’s money. This sparked what has proved to be a twenty-five year crusade against pokies, which has gathered plenty of support but failed to result in any legislative change.

What it has provided is a springboard for a national political presence following a decade in the South Australian Upper House, where he became the first independent elected to the chamber in six decades. He was joined by another Xenophon candidate, Ann Bressington, in the state parliament in 2006, having got within 5 per cent of the Liberal vote statewide, and outpolling the party at many booths, especially in the metropolitan area. Soon gaining a reputation as the great stunt-meister – he built a model gravy train to protest MPs’ entitlements, and brought a goat to parliament to implore people not to ‘kid around’ with their vote – Xenophon became the subject of continued speculation that he would switch to the federal parliament. It was unsurprising that when he did announce his intention to run for the Senate at the 2007 election, it was next to the giraffe enclosure at Adelaide’s zoo, saying he’d ‘stick his neck out’ for the state.

Now, a decade later, Xenophon is still in the Senate and he has three colleagues in Canberra with him as part of his Team. Rebekha Sharkie took the outer metropolitan seat of Mayo from the Liberals with 55 per cent of the two-party vote. In the Senate, Xenophon’s team won two places, with Stirling Griff and Skye Kakoschke-Moore joining their leader. Xenophon and Griff managed to get elected in the first six of those successful in the double dissolution poll, which means they’ll enjoy six-year terms. Elsewhere, the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) candidates in one metropolitan seat came second to Labor, leaving the Liberals in third place, and in two rural seats pushed Labor out of the traditional first two spots.

It’s an electoral success like no other for a third party, and the next test for Xenophon’s Team will be the state election due later this year or early in 2018. A poll in mid-September 2016 put the NXT party on 22 per cent of the vote, just five points behind the Labor Party and, after preferences are distributed on a notional basis, placing the Liberals in a 53–47 per cent winning position. Xenophon says his party will run at the state election, and he has ambitions to win the poll. ‘It will be targeted and strategic and we’re in it to win, but it will be a question of making the best use of our resources,’ he says. ‘We will target both Labor and Liberal seats because we want a genuine choice from the political centre. If we cause the major parties to lift their game it will be a good thing for democracy in South Australia.’

This highlights just what a disruptive and unpredictable impact Xenophon’s team could have – even though research shows its candidates take support from the Liberals and Labor in equal measure. South Australia’s Jay Weatherill has had two get-out-of-jail-free cards, taking power at the last two elections despite losing the popular vote. Xenophon might break the premier’s winning streak, which could cause the son of Greek migrants to crack a wry anti-gambling smile.

When asked about South Australia’s propensity to throw up centrist independents – an unusual political occurrence as revolutions usually start from the extremes – Xenophon says there’s an easy, quite glib, reason for it. ‘I’d explain it by saying we’ve always been in the shadow of the eastern states,’ says Xenophon. ‘Western Australia does its own thing and has vast mineral wealth, but here in the middle we feel overshadowed, and one way to get noticed is to show a bit of rebelliousness. It’s both a curse and blessing.’

Xenophon says he didn’t embark on a political career consciously but rather it was just what he felt he had to do. ‘I’m driven by issues and I do have fire in my belly,’ he says. ‘Until that goes I will keep getting up in the morning and pushing ahead. I still regard myself as an outsider and not part of any kind of tradition – although I do acknowledge South Australia does have a political heritage that is different to the rest of the country.’

South Australia’s Liberal leader, Steven Marshall – who might become a future premier courtesy of Xenophon – confirms the centrist nature of his state’s politics by claiming he is to the left of the ruling Labor Party. To emphasise the point, Marshall says his party has legislation before the parliament to decriminalise prostitution – something that’s being opposed by the Labor government, which is beholden to the socially conservative SDA Union. Marshall is also pushing for a plaque to recognise Steele Hall’s vision for Festival Centre when it undergoes major redevelopment next year.

WHAT ABOUT XENOPHON himself? He’s fifty-seven, and while one of the national parliament’s great hypochondriacs, suffers from some ailments, including a persistent bad back. If you’re sick he knows a medicine for it – almost always a natural remedy – and he carries antibacterial hand lotion because he fears germs. If you’re talking to him and mention a book you’ve read or heard about, he insists you text him the title so he can add it to his already impossible-to-finish reading pile. This is a metaphor for his life – he is always overburdened with things to do, causes to champion and media stunts to pull off. However, there are always more things to do and new angles to play and exploit.

You can hear his brain telling him that if he does one more thing he might crack a problem open or break through to the public. There really is no one like him in national politics, although more sober politicians in the major parties see him as an opportunist and populist who doesn’t mind some back-to-the-future, old-fashioned protectionism to advance his South Australia-first agenda. If his health stays on the better side of okay, he probably has another six-year term in him, which would take him through to 2028 if there are no early polls. It’s hard to know if his little band of Xenophon followers will survive, but his wave in South Australia has yet to crest.

The state poll will tell us more about this new force in South Australian politics, and the next federal election in 2019 will put Rebekha Starkie’s popularity in Mayo to the test. The Senate vote at that time will also show how his statewide support is holding up. When Xenophon had a fellow upper house colleague in state parliament, the two fell out bitterly and Ann Bressington quit the Xenophon team and joined the Katter Party – and soon departed the political stage altogether.

In many ways, Xenophon has been in the right place at the right time throughout his political career, even if little of it was planned or plotted. His rise as a Senate force came as the major parties were sharing historically low approval ratings and he had a name recognition of which most politicians can only dream. In a state like South Australia, living in the shadow of the eastern states and having something of an ignored snob’s chip on its shoulder, the man who promises to carry the flag across the borders to Canberra and keep shouting until something is done will always enjoy an attentive hearing from a willing audience. Xenophon shows no signs of slowing down or editing his to-do list. What is in no doubt is that he knows his state as well as any politician seen in the last fifty or so years.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 55: State of Hope © Copyright Griffith University & the author.