Joker in the pack
On the road with the irrepressible Nick Xenophon
Nick Xenophon’s small white car is stuffed with what looks like rubbish. I climb in and immediately conclude that his famous refusal to ever invite journalists to his house is probably wise. The independent senator for South Australia absent-mindedly hands me an empty take-away coffee cup to place in a holder on the dashboard. On second glance, I realise his car is less chaos and more mobile office. It holds at least a filing cabinet’s worth of papers, sprawled over the back seat and in the boot, sticking out at odd angles. Should a journalist importune him, it looks like he would have all the answers right there in his car.
People usually boast that their car is the latest model of a posh brand. Xenophon brags instead that his is a bomb, one of the cheapest cars on the market and almost a decade old. He warns me with relish that during a Senate inquiry he discovered this is one of the models where, in the event of an accident, there is a 1-in-12,000 chance of dying by way of a shrapnel-filled airbag. His eyes gleam. “And I’m a terrible driver, so the chances of an accident are not small!” Will I sign the waiver? I mock agree and we lurch out of the car park.
Xenophon is a bad driver. The little white car ricochets through the Adelaide traffic in uncertain fits and starts, as we continue our conversation, begun earlier that day in Melbourne, on everything from childhood to politics, and his numerous battles against the powerful on behalf of the little person.
Xenophon agreed readily to this profile when asked by the Monthly’s editor, but when we spoke by phone he immediately tried to dissuade me. Or pretended to. “I’m not interesting,” he said. But there are good reasons for writing about Nick Xenophon. In an article titled ‘Why Nick Xenophon is the most powerful man in Australia’, Paula Matthewson, a former adviser to John Howard, called him “King of the Senate crossbench”. In an era where it is common for neither the Coalition nor Labor to have a majority in the Senate, the crossbench has real power. In 2009, Xenophon famously held up the Rudd government’s $42 billion stimulus package until it agreed to bring forward a $900 million boost to water projects for the Murray–Darling Basin, a key issue for Xenophon’s dry state. He cast crucial votes to pass the Coalition’s Direct Action plan on emissions reduction and to block its higher-education package, among others.
The self-described “accidental politician” began by running on a single-issue anti-pokies ticket for the South Australian Legislative Council in 1997. No one thought he’d win. He did, but on preferences, after attracting less than 3% of the statewide primary vote. He did so well during his eight-year term that he retained his seat in 2006 with 21% of the vote. Over the years, he has won a lot of attention with clever stunts, often featuring animals. Giraffes, mules, goats and dogs have all played a part in Xenophon’s rise.
He switched to federal politics in 2007 and was elected to the Australian Senate with a respectable quota. By 2013, the result was remarkable for an independent: he won 24.9%, just short of two full quotas. He won more votes than the Labor Party, with 22%, or the Greens, with 7%. Only the Liberals won more votes, with 27%. Clem Macintyre, professor of politics and international studies at the University of Adelaide, told the ABC that the support for Xenophon as an independent was unprecedented any time, anywhere in this nation.
It has been hard to pin down the hardworking and peripatetic senator. We meet at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport. I am to accompany him to Adelaide, attend a function with him that night and sit in on his meetings with constituents the next day. He wants to meet outside the airport’s Krispy Kreme. This is typical. Xenophon always travels economy, preferably on a cheap flight. No helicopters. No business-class trips for the whole family. He sets his face determinedly against privilege. But meeting outside Krispy Kreme is partly performative. I’m meant to report it. Xenophon is genuinely frugal with taxpayers’ money, but he likes being seen to be so.
The 56-year-old has an unnatural pallor, as if he hasn’t seen the sun in a long time. He has a kind face, which is often mischievous but can settle, when he feels unobserved, into worry lines. He has large brown eyes and a broad forehead with a shock of very stiff black hair that sprouts straight upwards. This gives an impression of raised eyebrows, a permanent air of surprise. In a characteristic gesture, he dips his chin and looks upwards with those big eyes; his expression is a little doleful, all innocence. Yet there is something playful about it too, ever so slightly hammed up, as if he knows he is playing the role of the ingenue.
Xenophon begins with his signature self-deprecating jokes. He tells me his good friend Tim Costello, the CEO of World Vision Australia, calls him the Greek Woody Allen. Xenophon used to like the comparison, but “after the step-daughter thing” he is “no longer so keen on it”. It is true, though, that he wisecracks, pokes fun at himself as a self-confessed hypochondriac, and wrings his hands with existential angst.
En route to the plane he stops to buy a shirt on special. “I do all my clothes shopping at airports.” He stuffs it into a large bag that reminds me of Mary Poppins’ magic carpetbag, because he keeps producing useful things from it. Even for me. Like water. The harried senator is a great anticipator of need. Then we have to run to the gate.
Slowly the story of his life unfolds. He was born in Adelaide in 1959 to two migrants. His mother, Georgia, had come from Greece and his father, Theo, from Cyprus, “for a better life”. His father wrote a series of bestselling novels in Cyprus, which were about politics. A successful builder, the imaginative and creative Theo won Inventor of the Week on the ABC program The Inventors. Young Nick was very proud. His mother was a seamstress. “They talked about politics all the time, almost [as if] as migrants they had a greater obligation to this country to be politically aware, and be involved.” He describes his father as a “soft liberal”. Another uncle is a lefty firebrand. “You put two Greeks together and there are three political parties.” Any possible conflict of views is defused by a tone of affectionate acceptance. A “special time” was when his father drove Xenophon to school and they listened to Radio National’s AM program together.
There was an adored grandmother, “strong, feisty, who I was very close to”, who has since died. In 1987, when Xenophon was 28, he spent four weeks in Greece with her. “We cooked together, had fun, just a fantastic time together; it was priceless to have that experience.” He taped her describing her memories of World War Two. “Other people my age couldn’t understand it – they went off on Contiki tours of Europe.”
Xenophon’s parents had that fierce desire of many migrants for their kids to do well in life, to have more opportunities than they had. His parents, he says, “gave everything to us”. Part of those high aspirations was to send Xenophon and his sister, Colleen, to expensive private schools. Xenophon went to one of the most privileged in Adelaide, Prince Alfred College. The little Greek Orthodox boy, however, didn’t fit in. He was bullied and called a wog. “I was a very shy child, very withdrawn, very, very few close friends.” He was “a loner”. He gravitated towards outsiders, and spent a lot of his time by himself reading. When I ask what he read, he wards me off with a joke: “Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five.”
As he talks, I am trying to imagine this playful Greek and his voluble family encountering the dour Methodists of Adelaide. His schooldays were long before multiculturalism, in a time dominated by the white-bread world of the Anglo, when a child of different ethnicity, with a funny name and a lunch that smelled different, would invariably be mocked. In those posh boys’ schools, the English traditions of schooling to shape soldiers of Empire lie just under the surface. There remains an unstated warrior ethos, and with it, a social hierarchy. Xenophon was far from the unstated ideal type, the blond, blue-eyed captain of the First XI cricket team. He had a tryout in the under-12 football team, only to be hauled off the field after ten minutes and given the role of “the orange boy”. “I was pathetic,” he says. In his worst subject, maths, the teacher smacked him over the head and bemoaned that he was a “drone” like the Chappell brothers. But, the teacher said, at least they could play cricket.
I guess that it was here he learned to tell self-deprecating jokes. If you tell a joke at your own expense you’ve got there first – lowering yourself willingly in others’ eyes – before someone else does. Jokes can be true, half true or a false lead, leading you right away from where the joker doesn’t want you to look.
If you are an outsider, and a sensitive and empathetic child, then your moral imagination may well be engaged by the underdog. I ask him if this is where his dislike of privilege started. Xenophon agrees this was the beginning of his passion for acting on behalf of the powerless against the powerful. He is still an outsider, he says, in politics.
He was thunderstruck when, as a 16-year-old, he first heard the Greek myth of Sisyphus. As he tells it, Sisyphus angered the gods by being disrespectful to them, so he was condemned to a life of eternal damnation, rolling a boulder up a hill ever after, to get just near the crest when it rolls down the hill again. This spoke to Xenophon’s view of life. “That sounds angst-ridden for a 16-year-old,” I say, wondering who the gods are in Xenophon’s life that he feels must always be appeased. “I was full of angst then,” he replies, “and I’m full of angst now.”
Xenophon’s hero as a youth was the American consumer lawyer Ralph Nader. That’s why he went into law. A man of abstemious habits, Nader was ferociously hardworking, never partnered and, like Xenophon now, lived alone. He devoted his life to public service, and to the crusade on behalf of the little guy against the might of big corporations. “Nader took on GM, Ford and VW on behalf of consumer safety – and won,” Xenophon says. California governor Jerry Brown also had a powerful effect on the young Xenophon. Brown was a “fiscal conservative but a social liberal who eschewed the perks of office”. He didn’t live in the governor’s mansion, but slept on a mattress in a small, modest flat. He walked to work rather than be chauffeured in a limousine.
At the University of Adelaide, Xenophon was a member of the Young Liberals. He brushes it off as a youthful folly. “Some kids do drugs, I was a member of the Young Liberals.” In October 1976 he became the youngest editor ever of the university magazine, On Dit. He ran on a platform of fiscal discipline and pragmatism. In his first editorial he noted, “I am a pragmatist and, as such, realise no amount of space in On Dit can (for example) change Pinochet’s mind on the way he and his cohorts govern Chile.”
But there was a great scandal. It has haunted him ever since. Some Young Liberals campaigning for his editorship rigged the vote. As he tells it, he was the hapless beneficiary. Julia Gillard claimed in her 2014 autobiography that it was Xenophon who did the rigging. He sued for defamation, and earlier this year she took out an advertisement in national newspapers to apologise. He tells me that at the time he initially thought the talk of rigging was a joke, and ploughed onward. Then, at a certain point, he realised it was true. “I felt sick, just totally sick, when I found out. I never want to be in that position again.” But he didn’t resign as editor straight away, and only wrote a public confession about the episode in On Dit in June 1978, after his editorship had ended.
He topped several law subjects and was appointed as a law tutor for a time. Christopher Pyne was a student. “I taught him everything he doesn’t know.” He tells me that on social issues he was often “liberal”. One event had a profound effect on him. While Xenophon was a student in the university’s law faculty, he learned that some years earlier, in May 1972, the body of a law lecturer, Dr George Duncan, had been pulled out of the River Torrens. Duncan had been murdered by anti-gay thugs, and his death prompted law reform to decriminalise homosexuality in South Australia. Xenophon still considers himself Greek Orthodox but supports same-sex marriage. He acknowledges there are some in that religious community who are uneasy with his position.
I ask him why he went into politics and he jokes, “It was psychotherapy for shyness.” The issue that kicked off his political life, however, was poker machines. Xenophon first made his reputation as a very successful personal-injury lawyer. Back in the mid ’90s, a client had won a payout in a workers compensation case for a brain injury. Then he lost it all. Gaming venues took advantage of his cognitively impaired state, sending drivers to pick him up so he could gamble his money away on the pokies. Once he’d lost it all, they didn’t want to know him. His story got to Xenophon in some deep way.
Xenophon is extremely private. Part of this is admirable. He wants to protect his ex-wife, his parents and, above all, a beloved son from publicity. But he is also very uncomfortable when talking about the personal. “Nick doesn’t like introspection,” says Tim Costello, a fellow campaigner against the pokies. Xenophon still describes himself as “a loner”. He has few close friends, he says, although a number of people I talk to say they feel close to him. The end of his brief marriage, though mutual and amicable, does not sit easily with a man like Xenophon. It seems still a matter of considerable pain. His story is one of continuity rather than of ending. His ex-wife, Sandra, “will always be family”. They are still “good friends”, who “look out for one another”. Together they are devoted to their 23-year-old son, Aleksis.
We arrive at Adelaide High School, where Xenophon’s cousin George Hassouros runs the football program. Xenophon is to present the awards that night. As we swing into the car park, he tells me he loves his cousin and came to admire him deeply when he cared for a dying parent, still working long hours at his business and finding time to coach. The Xenophon ideal is one of selflessness, public and private.
However, we barely sit down before we dive off again: Xenophon has been invited to appear on the ABC’s Lateline to talk about the bullying of surgeons. He’s worried he’ll get hypoglycaemic and faint on TV, so on the way to the ABC studio we drop in at his favourite souvlaki restaurant. Xenophon produces an antibacterial hand rub and pronounces he is a germaphobe. He rubs his hands feverishly, then sits and manages to wolf a little down. After three mouthfuls he leaps up and bins it. We zoom off. He smacks a hand down on the wheel as he listens to a news item on the radio. “I should have done more on that,” he says. It is the only time he expresses anger while I am with him, and it is directed at himself. From my research and our conversations, I am aware of the incredible number of issues he is across. But he’s beating himself up over the one that got away.
Later that night, at the function, shining-faced boys get their awards. The coaches and all the helpers, from uniform washers to food preparers, are given gifts of appreciation. Xenophon turns to me, face suddenly sober, and gestures towards his cousin, to what is happening in this room: “That’s goodness, right there.”
The next morning Xenophon rings me early. He’s been up for a while already, working. How was the hotel? He is very pleased that I have chosen a modest hotel near his electorate office. I say that the hotel was fine, except for the coffee. He good-naturedly scoffs at my complaint, and insists on coming to meet me so I don’t get lost. He rushes up and grabs my suitcase. He looks at me in consternation. I am wearing a blouse, whereas he is rugged up against the early-morning cold with a thick coat and muffler scarf. “Won’t you get cold?” he asks. He’s become my Greek auntie already.
He takes off down the street, coat and scarf flying, and I flail along after him. I have a badly arthritic foot, but don’t tell him. I have observed enough of his solicitousness to know that if I did he might organise a wheelchair. Despite his scoffing he has anticipated my need for decent coffee. Someone emerges from a cafe with a takeaway. The first constituent he is meeting that day has been roped in to being Anne’s Coffee Monitor.
In the first meeting, and for the rest of the day, I see a different Xenophon. He has shifted gear. He is genial and kind, and he still cracks a few jokes, but he is all business. Watching him work one on one with constituents, I can see many traces of the successful personal-injury lawyer. He has a finite amount of time to get the relevant information and to work out what to do. He is quickly across each brief. He is capable of asking some direct, sharp questions too. The end point of each discussion is what action to take. Follow-ups are arranged. He always finishes, “We won’t die wondering.”
Throughout the day we zip back and forth between Xenophon’s office and meetings with constituents around Adelaide. Talking to youngsters from a film school, he looks at his watch, then jokes that it was $9 from Kmart. They laugh wildly. He tells them of his new-found enthusiasm for Aaron Sorkin’s idealistic political drama The West Wing. It ended its television run almost a decade ago. He has no time for TV but watches old episodes on long flights. The young film buffs find his dorkiness endearing. “But I don’t like that show House of Cards,” he says with a theatrical shudder. It is a portrayal of a Machiavellian sociopath who will stop at nothing, even murder, to get to be president. “I need a bath and scrub with a wire brush after watching that show.”
As we run back to the car after a meeting, I ruefully consider my footwear. One of his staffers points to her flat shoes. “There’s a lot of running with Nick,” she says. In the car, letters to the prime minister are dictated, hands-free phone calls are made, texts are typed by staffers, media interviews given and strategies planned. Even with this multi-tasking, “We’re late,” he cries. The office is rung to put back the next appointment. Hope of a half hour for lunch recedes. Back at the office, I go up in the lift while the senator, who had open-heart surgery in 2002, bounds up the stairs to save a few seconds. On the whirlwind day goes. According to his staffers, every constituent day is like this. In Canberra, it is even more hectic.
When I finally get on the plane to go home, I want to go into a dark room and put a wet cloth over my head. Too much has happened in too short a time.
During his maiden speech in federal parliament, Xenophon recounted the opening scene from the Woody Allen classic Annie Hall. Allen’s character tells an old joke about two elderly women at a resort in the Catskills. “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” says one. “Yeah, I know, and such small portions!” says the other. Allen’s character goes on to say that the exchange is how he feels about life: there’s loneliness, misery and suffering, but it’s all over much too quickly. “I am sure that is how I am going to feel while I am here,” Xenophon told the Senate, “but I would not have it any other way.”
But there has been very little misery. Instead his star has risen. With the launch of his new party, the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), things are getting serious. He has emerged as a powerful third force in South Australian politics, and potentially federally too. Xenophon and the threat of NXT played a role in the destabilisation of Tony Abbott’s leadership. Earlier this year, a CFMEU poll undertaken by ReachTEL showed that if an NXT candidate stood in the electorate of Sturt, the sitting member, Christopher Pyne, would lose. The NXT candidate would win not on preferences but in their own right on a primary vote. After preferences, the result would be 62% for NXT. Other sitting members also looked vulnerable. Of course, a poll is only suggestive. When the electorate is faced with an NXT candidate, not Xenophon himself, the support might fade somewhat.
If, however, there is a tight election and NXT fulfils the promise of this poll, or if NXT preferences Labor against the Liberals, then the Coalition has a problem. Xenophon has been a passionate, tireless advocate of an Adelaide build for a new submarines contract. He has warned of massive job losses if shipbuilding and the car industry continue to be unsupported under neoliberal policies. South Australians are listening. Unemployment is the highest of any state, at around 8%. The ReachTEL poll showed two thirds of Sturt voters felt the federal government was not doing nearly enough to protect local jobs.
At the end of 2014, the then defence minister, David Johnston, was dismissive of the Adelaide-based ASC (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation), saying, “I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe.” He lost his portfolio in a reshuffle. Suddenly, Abbott thought the state worth visiting. Cabinet met in Adelaide. A new frigate build worth $40 billion was announced. Other expenditure on roads was promised. The Liberals are rattled. Xenophon has announced NXT will run a candidate in the marginal seat of Boothby, where he outpolled the Liberals in the Senate vote at the last federal election. Early polls look good for Xenophon. While I was in Adelaide, the sitting Liberal Party member for Boothby, Andrew Southcott, resigned.
The support, even more remarkably, has built up for an individual, without the benefits of a well-known brand, a party machine and party finances. “That’s sensational,” says Sam Dastyari, a Labor senator and member of the NSW Right. “He’s one of the best – if not the best – retail politicians we have in this country … Nick is a political force we have rarely seen in this country outside organised major political party politics.” Dastyari adds, “I’ve walked down that main street in Adelaide with two prime ministers, but no one gets the reception Nick does. It’s ‘feel the love’.”
Tim Costello puts it down to Xenophon’s stance against entitlement. “At this time in Australia the social contract has been breached. There is white-hot fury when they lecture us on the age of entitlement being over and [then] they go and behave like Bronwyn Bishop. Nick has perfectly caught the mood of all that.”
You can imagine how powerless Don Shipway felt when the multinational ASICS suddenly stopped supplying its bestselling sneakers to his Sports Locker store in suburban Adelaide. It looked like the business he and his wife, Kay, had built since 1976 was going pear-shaped just as they neared retirement.
Shipway tried to contact ASICS’ Australian headquarters but they wouldn’t see him. He emailed Xenophon. He expected no answer. Instead, he got an appointment in which Xenophon tried to organise a meeting with Rod Sims, the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. “So he’s got that going,” Shipway recalls, “and then he says, ‘Where are these shoes made?’ I say, ‘China, but headquarters are in Japan.’ ‘Right, we’ll go to Japan,’ he says.”
A stunned Don Shipway went back to his shop and said to his wife, “I think I’m going to Canberra and I’m not surprised if I’m going to Japan.” Shipway had expected a five-minute appointment. He and his wife got five days in Japan with the exuberant, high-profile senator working as an indefatigable ally on their behalf.
I ask Shipway whether he thought going to Japan would work. “Not really,” he says. “But basically because of the way this guy has supported us, I didn’t want to let him down.” Shipway is a former coach of the local National Basketball League team, the Adelaide 36ers. He’s a good storyteller. He likens Xenophon to the “little bloke” whom you might overlook on first pick. “But he keeps jumping up in front of you saying, ‘Pick me, pick me’ … He’s annoyed you so much you’d put him on your team and then he does everything for you, works the hardest. He’s the one you don’t want to ever let go.”
Travelling to Japan with Xenophon was “fun and funny”, says Shipway. “He’s a terrific travelling companion, a caring fellow.” Kay became ill on a bus. “Nick saw this, and he is up and he’s down looking in his bag for some tablets that might help her. ‘Kay, you sit back here near the window.’ He’s on the phone to his pharmacist cousin back in Adelaide. He’s absolutely switched on.”
Shipway says Xenophon was as engaged on behalf of “our Mickey Mouse shoe shop” as he was on behalf of South Australia and the submarines. While he was campaigning in Japan, he was also furiously working on a huge range of other issues. On a train, he would take a five-minute nap every so often, then snap back to work. The pace was too much for Shipway. He wanted to sit in a dark room with a towel over his head. “This guy was killing me, so much energy.”
Xenophon paid for his own flight and arranged an interpreter. He refused to let the Shipways shout him a meal. He refused a hotel upgrade. Shipway contrasts him with “that helicopter lady”. When he and the Shipways arrived at ASICS headquarters there was a TV crew waiting and a banner that Xenophon had organised. It got them a meeting, but not a result. ASICS did not change their mind. Back in Adelaide, people kept coming to the store because they had seen the press. Everyone, it seemed, had a Xenophon story.
It is easy to understand why the Shipways are smitten with Xenophon. When I visit the store with him, it is hugs all round. Kay clucks over him. Is he looking after himself, slowing down, taking time for himself? Don seems on the verge of tears as he gestures to Xenophon and says, shaking his head, “What this man did for us.” They’re still good friends.
Privately, I wonder about the wisdom of taking someone whose business is going downhill on such a costly trip. There is something admirable but also unrealistic about it. Perhaps it is less David and Goliath and more Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.
Before meeting Xenophon I wondered if he might be an entitled Little Prince grown up. One of those boys who are placed on the throne by their mother, and ever after have that special dose of confidence. But Xenophon doesn’t strike me like that at all. He’s an empath. He has an ability to completely swing his attention to others. If anything, he seems, as he dashes from one appointment and issue to the next, to have too keen a sense of his responsibility for the world. He can be overly attentive to others and inattentive to himself. If only he rolls his boulder of responsibility up the hill one more time it might make a difference. He seems to lack a sense of entitlement to something basic – to rest.
Tim Costello agrees that Xenophon is “unusually empathetic”. As a friend he is “genuinely concerned. Even on the maddest media day, he always asked how family is.” When Xenophon had his life-threatening heart problem, “he was still ringing me from his hospital bed, worrying over my health”.
Like many people I spoke to, Costello says that “Nick wears his heart on his sleeve. Nick will ring up so upset.” In 2014, Xenophon campaigned on behalf of long-term residents at Adelaide’s Brighton Caravan Park, who were facing eviction due to a proposed redevelopment of the site. For Xenophon, it was the story of the popular movie The Castle: it might be humble but it was these battlers’ home. “He got Michael Caton, star of the film, over. He put up the money. He fought for them pro bono. He lost the case but he was so moved by them.”
With sensitivity comes vulnerability. He is “upset by unjust criticism” and “takes things hard”. He is bewildered by an attack that Costello thinks is “just a tickle”. “He was devastated when Julia Gillard said what she did.” But sensitive or not, as in many of these exchanges, it was Gillard who ended up eating humble pie. Xenophon landed on his feet.
Professor Martin Seligman, a proponent of “positive psychology”, endorses a leadership style that is about “encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included”. He might have been talking about Xenophon’s role in trying to create order out of chaos with the new Senate crossbenchers. After the 2013 election, when the Coalition failed to gain a majority in the Senate, the eight crossbenchers became extremely important. Joining Xenophon and John Madigan (then part of the Democratic Labour Party) on the crossbench were Dio Wang, Glenn Lazarus and Jacqui Lambie from the fledgling Palmer United Party (PUP), the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, the Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm and Family First’s Bob Day.
It seemed Clive Palmer’s PUP might hold the balance of power in the Senate. Soon Lazarus and Lambie split from PUP and became independents. This made for an unusually unruly crossbench that had to be won over if government legislation was to get through. Getting the crossbench to agree to anything, ABC commentator Annabel Crabb remarked, was like having bunnies in a basket. The deal you do to get a few in might make another one hop out. Prime Minister Abbott was less kind, branding them “feral” when they forced changes to Joe Hockey’s first and highly unpopular budget.
Dastyari pays tribute to Xenophon’s role in the new Senate. “While I don’t agree with everything he’s done, there’s a lot of bad policy that has become better as a result of Nick’s involvement. Nick’s first instinct is to say, ‘How can I work with people? How can I make something better?’ Nick’s first instinct isn’t to say no.”
“Despite our political differences, we have banded together as a coalition of common sense,” Xenophon said when several crossbenchers joined him to combine with Labor to oppose a weakening of financial advice laws. The situation is still volatile, however. In October, the other seven crossbenchers met without Xenophon to discuss their opposition to Xenophon’s recent proposals on Senate electoral reform. These would wipe out hidden preference deals between micro-parties, of the kind that allowed Ricky Muir to be elected with only 0.51% of the vote. Lambie criticised her colleagues for excluding Xenophon.
Xenophon has been building a relationship with Lambie for some time. She is a battler who interests people, but also divides them with her views on sharia law and banning the burqa. Xenophon takes it in his stride. In fact, she fits easily into his central framework, of liking the underdog. “Jacqui’s a good person,” he says equably to me. He was sympathetic to her anguish over her son’s ice addiction, her desire to do something. They share a passion for keeping lucrative defence procurement contracts in Australia. They both come from states hit by the demise of Australian manufacturing, where there is high unemployment.
Consider the contrast between the abrasive Palmer and the soothing, smoothing Xenophon. Lambie accused Palmer of bullying and intimidating her. Palmer described her as a “drama queen” who “thinks she’s bigger than Australia”. Xenophon’s style is to tend and befriend. He woos – those he wants to – with respect and kindness.
“When I left Palmer United it was like a lamb to the slaughter,” Lambie says. Xenophon took her under his wing. She describes him as “extremely solid, extremely trustworthy, very supportive, with a big care factor”.
“It comes down to respect, we respect each other … He can say, very frankly, ‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea.’ We come from very different worlds. I have a lot of the underdog. Thing is, I don’t have a legal background but Nick does.”
He is now mentoring her through the process of getting up her private member’s bill on involuntary rehabilitation for addicted family members under 18.
Xenophon has treated the crossbenchers like members of a sprawling, argumentative Greek family. Differences are philosophical, not personal. Madigan, a close friend of Xenophon’s, says he likes him so much because he can agree to disagree. Xenophon is a social liberal, pro-choice on abortion and a supporter of same-sex marriage, while independent Madigan is ex-DLP, a devout Catholic and opposes both.
It is hard to find Xenophon saying a bad word about anyone. Even Scott Morrison, whom he found a way of working with on the controversial asylum-seeker deal in late 2014. He describes the newly appointed treasurer as “the closest thing we have to John Howard, socially conservative, pragmatic and quite innovative in the way he tries to do things”. That deal upset a lot of people in the refugee sector, who saw it as a sellout of vulnerable people. Xenophon may be an idealist about person-to-person politics, as in the Shipways’ case, but in parliament he is a relentless pragmatist.
These interpersonal skills in handling conflict are part of why Dastyari thinks Xenophon is such “an absolute force”. They may also be the kind of political skills you need in the modern era. Dastyari points to the steady decline in the major party vote. “The crossbenchers are not an abnormality,” he says. “The reality is, this is the new normal. The crossbench is here to stay. This is what the future of politics is going to be like.”
He may well be right. The past eight years have seen one minority government and five prime ministers. The instability comes from tensions, enforced silences in our national conversation, where the major parties have reached a tight exclusionary consensus on neoliberalism. Issues that have been excluded have started to matter politically.
As we hurtle down an Adelaide street on the first day of our encounter, the fiscally conservative senator startles me. “I think our temperament is closer to the Scandinavians than to the Americans.” He mentions what the right-leaning Economist called the Nordic super model. In 2014, the then editor-in-chief of that magazine, John Micklethwait, and its management editor, Adrian Wooldridge, published a book called The Fourth Revolution: The global race to reinvent the state. They examine different models of the state from Singapore to Sweden. It is interesting, says Xenophon, that they do not consider the US.
The book does not, Xenophon emphasises, sing the praises of the “old sclerotic, bloated welfare state”. The Nordic states have revamped their model. They have tackled debt, reduced government expenditure, and opened education and health to the market. They are tough free-traders; Sweden even let an iconic company, Saab, go to the wall. But they have kept a “very good safety net”, according to Xenophon. “They don’t get everything right. But they get a lot right.” People don’t resent paying taxes because they get such good value for money.
I prick up my ears. Australia is one of the lowest-taxing nations in the OECD. Even with cuts to government expenditure, the Nordic states are among the highest. Is Xenophon saying we have a revenue problem, not a spending problem? Does this mean he might support higher taxes?
First, he tells me that Australians don’t mind paying taxes for good services delivered efficiently. He cites Medicare. But he then sidesteps and starts talking enthusiastically about cutting government waste. He sees it every-where. And then there’s corporate tax minimisation. Xenophon was like a terrier with its teeth sunk in a bull’s nose when he went after senior executives from Google, Apple and Microsoft at the Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance in April this year. But tighter tax laws and delivering services more efficiently are not going to make up the difference between Australia and the Nordic model.
Few realise the degree to which the Coalition under Tony Abbott was importing Tea Party rhetoric. While it was Robert Menzies who first spoke of “lifters” and “leaners”, in Joe Hockey’s mouth the meaning was much closer to that of Ayn Rand, whose central idea was that the world is divided into “producers” and “parasites”. Yet our political traditions, born of British history, the struggle of the English working class against the worst excesses of capitalism, are very different.
Many people find Xenophon a political enigma, seemingly eclectic or inconsistent. They can’t make him out. How, for example, can he do good work trying to improve Abbott’s Direct Action plan but then be against wind farms? But there is actually a consistency here. Xenophon regards it as an issue of the little person in rural areas against the big corporations running the wind farms.
“So much of our current debate works on the plane from left to right,” says Sam Dastyari. “Nick’s is on a different axis. He works from top to bottom, meaning the disempowered versus the powerful, not the ideological left versus the conservative right.”
Xenophon’s approach has a deep appeal to many contemporary voters. Just get rich, Hockey seemed to be suggesting when, in response to concerns over skyrocketing house prices, he told people to get a good job that pays good money. Yet in July this year the median price of a house in Sydney was $1 million. In addition to displaced manufacturing workers there is now a much larger group – “the precariat”, to use the term popularised by British sociologist Guy Standing – underemployed in low-paid, insecure part-time work. These are not jobs with which you can easily build a home and a family.
The triumphalist neoliberal narrative does not account for the care deficit across every area of human life: mental health, addiction, education, child care, hospitals. People are told they must tighten their belts, work until they are 70, pay $100,000 for a degree. The people who can cope with the user-pays principle extending by stealth to hospitals, aged care and university education – this last being the route of upward mobility in Australia – are those who can pay. The price of a leaner, meaner Australian state for the rest has been anxiety and insecurity.
Then, into this new social ecology, into this space of the care deficit, when much in politics seems cynical or heartless, steps Xenophon. He seems to place not self-interest but the care of others at the centre of his political life. Australia’s anti-politician politician is the opposite of Donald Trump. He boasts not about his wealth but about his frugality with taxpayers’ money. He is one of us. He is someone a citizen can reliably turn to when all else fails. Is it any wonder Xenophon is so popular?
I never expected, when I started this profile, that as part of my research I would watch old bouts of World Championship Wrestling. The reason is simple. Xenophon, I learned, adored wrestling as a boy, mesmerised by “the Golden Greek” Spiros Arion.
At university he read Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The World of Wrestling’ and “had goosebumps all over”. Barthes argues that it is wrong to think boxing is a superior art to wrestling. To say the hammed-up contests are fake is to miss the point. Of course they are. But so is any theatre. And like the open-air theatre of the ancient Greeks, this is a spectacle that enacts the human condition with unrestrained passion. Pro wrestling is choreographed theatre, the outcome pre-determined, using the dramatic language of exaggerated gestures. The wrestlers thump the mat again and again with a feeble arm, enacting Suffering, or Defeat, or prance about in Victory. Wrestling depicts the “Agony and Ecstasy” of human and political struggle, according to Xenophon. Above all, it is a drama about justice. “Wrestlers,” Barthes writes, “know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice.”
So does Xenophon. Tim Costello describes him as an “incredibly playful” man with “a fantastic imagination”. It would be a mistake to emphasise the angst-ridden aspect of Xenophon’s character. Xenophon’s enthusiasm is infectious. He ropes Costello into his stunts. “I remember thinking, This is surreal. Why am I carrying a goat down Bourke Street?” That was in December 2008 to highlight a pre-Christmas “Presents Not Pokies” campaign against gambling. Xenophon once rode a toy car in the main street of Adelaide to publicise his stance against politicians’ perks. Most recently, he carried a black submarine cake with sparklers into Parliament House, to dramatise the fact that on the second birthday of the Coalition’s election win the government had not yet committed to an Adelaide build of the submarines.
Corny? Certainly. But how did the “accidental politician” rise without a known party brand, machine or funding? While seasoned politicians send out tedious press releases like postcards into space, the canny senator has been capitalising on the fact that everyone loves a joke. His stunts are clever visual gags. And they are about real issues, like the anguish of gambling addiction or politicians behaving in entitled ways. But they are dramatised in a way that makes the issue intelligible to people at a glance.
Xenophon also uses Senate committee hearings, especially those public ones guaranteed publicity, as another form of political theatre. I went to watch the Senate Standing Economics References Committee Inquiry into the Scrutiny of Financial Advice when it convened in Melbourne in September.
Ordinary “unsophisticated” investors are being targeted by cunning schemers. Citizens who exemplify Scott Morrison’s ideal of those who work, save and invest have fallen victim to unscrupulous financial advisers or “educators”. Some have lost their life savings.
But how do you communicate that? In wrestling, different contestants have clearly delineated roles in the unfolding drama of Good versus Evil. The Innocent today before the committee is Grazyna Monka, who has come from Western Australia. An older woman with an anxious, careworn face, she explains that after watching an online seminar she bought an option over two lots of land that she was told would increase their value in the future due to rezoning. It’s a scheme called land banking. Monka tells the Senate hearing that she invested 90% of all her worldly worth, almost $60,000, via a self-managed superannuation fund. But the 21st Century group of companies, which promoted the scheme, is now under investigation from the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. She is concerned she will lose all her money, in which case she will be wiped out.
Enter the Villain. Jamie McIntyre is from the 21st Century group of companies. He claims he is a social philanthropist helping to solve the housing crisis with his land-banking schemes. It’s all altruism. He is only in the business of financial education, which has helped people around the world become millionaires.
Like pro wrestlers, Xenophon and Dastyari advance upon him. Over the morning things get heated. Dastyari calls McIntyre a con man. McIntyre threatens to sue. What are his qualifications, asks Xenophon. McIntyre stiffens. He says that he learned about property investment through his “work with wealthy individuals”. It’s as if Xenophon choreographed the answer. He asks if one of McIntyre’s mentors was Henry Kaye. Kaye’s property schemes have left thousands out of pocket. McIntyre estimates investors have put around $23 million into these land-banking deals. Xenophon establishes that between 600 and 700 Australians are involved. How many have made money so far?
There is a long silence. Then McIntyre says it’s a long-term strategy. He is almost on the floor. Xenophon pauses, looks over the spectacles perched on the end of his nose. It’s a gesture I’ve seen now in many videos of Senate inquiries. “I have heard lots of witnesses in my seven years in the Senate,” he says. “You would have to be the most evasive witness that I have ever had to deal with, and that is saying something.”
McIntyre is finally on the mat, flailing. The two senators go at him until he agrees to pay back Monka her money. The reporters scratch in their notebooks and the camera whirrs. And as usual, Xenophon is in the centre of the frame.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a serious, heartbreaking matter for ordinary, conscientious, if naive, Australians. The consequences can be devastating: an impoverished old age. But just as Barthes said about the spectacle of wrestling, it is not merely that justice be done but that it be seen to be done. What Xenophon does is use political theatre to dramatise injustice. And highlight his own role in fighting for Justice.
“I worry that one day the telephone will ring and it will be to tell me that Nick is dead.” It is John Madigan who puts directly what others have been hinting at. “I don’t know when he sleeps or eats,” says Sam Dastyari. “Nick works 100-hour weeks.” Dastyari thinks it comes at a price. “You can’t sacrifice the way Nick sacrifices, give the way he does … and it not have consequences on your own life. You always end up giving up a part of yourself as well.”
It is late one evening when I have my final interview with Xenophon. As I ask him the last, rather difficult questions, he has me on speakerphone in the car as he drives home after a gruelling day. He has just put forward a proposal for new voting methods in the Senate, and he has been looking over the law for a test case on the pokies. There has been a quick hello to his son, a text from his ex-wife. As he arrives home I can hear him talking to neighbours outside, turning the key to the empty flat. He is weary, and I am asking him about the rigged On Dit ballot. The question was never that Xenophon was involved in rigging the ballot, but whether he should have resigned when he found out. Straight away. Wouldn’t that have been the right thing to do? Although he is thrown, he answers not defensively but evenly. “It’s a fair question,” he says, “a very fair question.” He acknowledges he made a mistake.
Then I ask him about the sacrifices he has made for politics. He says that politics is not a career for him but a vocation. I ask him whether he thinks his son would want the life he has. He begins to talk about his marriage breakdown, although that was before he entered politics. He wonders if he would have become as sick as he did with heart problems if he had taken a proper rest. He can’t quite answer. There is a long pause. Then he says, “Probably not after seeing the hours he works, what his father’s life is like.”
My final question is about the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Xenophon thinks local issues will continue to give NXT traction. Politics will be less personal, but Turnbull’s popularity will make the struggle harder. Xenophon returns to his metaphor of the labour of Sisyphus. It “will make the boulder I am rolling up the hill that little bit lighter but the hill that little bit steeper”. After we ring off, I imagine him trying to unwind before getting up early the next morning to do it all again.