Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Prospects for the Nick Xenophon Team

Senator Nick Xenophon is one of Australia's best-known politicians who is not a member of the two major parties. He was an independent member of the South Australian Legislative Council from 1997 to 2007, and a federal Senator from then up until now.

His political career started when he ran for the South Australian Legislative Council in 1997 as an Independent No Pokies (anti-poker machine) candidate. Under South Australian electoral law, independent candidates are allowed a box above the line, with a four-word description after the word 'independent'.

South Australia's Legislative Council is elected using the single transferable vote. However, it has one key modification. Voters can either write the number 1 in the box above the line, which accepts the preference ticket of the party, or they can number every box for every candidate below the line. This system is used in Western Australia for their upper house, and with some modifications in Victoria (voters are not required to number every box below the line). It was used in the federal Senate until recently, when the Turnbull government repealed it.

This system means that parties can direct strong preference flows, allowing little-known candidates to win with small shares of the first preference vote. Xenophon's ticket received 2.86% of the first preference vote; 0.34 of a quota. However, he received ticket preferences from seven other minor parties, allowing him to be elected comfortably.

As neither the state Labor government nor the Liberal opposition had a majority in the Legislative Council, and as Legislative Council assent is required for all legislation, Xenophon was put in a fairly powerful position. He attached himself to a variety of populist causes, such as cutting entitlements for politicians and consumer rights issues.

He also uses irritatingly punny publicity stunts subtle visual metaphor to attract attention to himself, such as putting a large fake box of powdered gravy crystals on a model train (get it?), leading a goat through central Adelaide (the joke being that Xenophon was advising people not to kid around from their vote), leading a donkey through central Adelaide (to demonstrate that he would work like a mule for South Australia, and that he was willing to make an ass of himself to get elected), and announced his run for the Senate in 2007 outside the giraffe enclosure (he's sticking his neck out for South Australia). So far as I know, he has not posed near any giant archery equipment.

In 2006, he was re-elected to the South Australian Legislative Council. His ticket received 20.5% of the first preference vote, only 6% behind the state Liberals, allowing an extra member of his party to be elected. This candidate was Ann Bressington, who left the party just one year after the election (perhaps a demonstration of Xenophon's vetting ability?).

Following this, and with an appropriate pun discussed above, Xenophon announced a run for Federal Parliament. While he could perhaps have won a seat in the House of Representatives, that would give him little influence over legislation. He ran for a Senate seat, as an independent, and received 14.78% of the primary vote. This comfortably gave him a seat.

Xenophon was in a very politically important position at this point. The 2007 election had seen the election of a Labor Party government under the leadership of Kevin Rudd. However, Labor's weak performance at the previous election meant that the government only had 32 seats in the 76 member Senate, to 37 for the Liberal/National opposition. The Greens had five senators, and the remaining seat was held by the Family First party. With 39 votes needed to pass legislation, Xenophon was placed in a fairly powerful position; Labor needed total crossbench support to pass legislation.

This meant that Xenophon was able to extract concessions on certain issues. For example, when the Rudd government needed to pass a stimulus package in 2009, Xenophon threatened to block it unless $900 million in funding for water projects (mostly in South Australia).

Xenophon was not up for election in 2010, and he did not run a ticket. However, the election substantially weakened his power. In the Representatives, the Labor Party won 72 seats, and formed a coalition with a number of independent MPs to win 76 seats (a narrow majority). In the Senate, however, the Labor Party won 31 seats and the Greens won 9, giving both parties together a majority. As they were in coalition in the House, the 'government' had a Senate majority, and there was no need to negotiate with Xenophon.

Despite this, Xenophon was easily re-elected in 2013. He received 24.88% of the vote, was elected himself, and only missed out on a second seat because Labor, Green and assorted minor party preferences flowed against his second candidate.

The results of that election led to a Liberal-National government taking power federally. This swing meant that the Labor and Green parties lost control of the Senate, with the Labor Party winning 25 seats and the Greens 10. The Liberal Party won 33 seats, which meant that they would need the support of six of the crossbenchers, which included three members of the Palmer United Party, and one member each of the Liberal Democratic Party, Family First Party, Democratic Labour Party, and Motoring Enthusiast Party.

The Palmer United Party, a vanity party by Queensland mining millionaire, had the balance of power until Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie and Queensland Senator Glenn Lazarus left the party. This meant that Xenophon shared the balance of power with the other senators, and the government was forced to negotiate with him.

The term of the House of Representatives is scheduled to expire this year, thus meaning what would normally be an election for the whole House and half of the Senate. However, under the Australian Constitution, if the Senate rejects a bill passed by the House of Representatives two times, the government is able to call an election for the whole Senate and House. Hoping to remove some of the crossbenchers elected on small primary votes after the recent reform of the Senate electoral system, the government now appears to have secured a trigger for a double dissolution, following the failure of the Senate to pass bills regarding industrial relations.

Xenophon, meanwhile, has been busy forming a new political party. In July, he registered the 'Nick Xenophon Group' as a political party, which he only used to run for election in South Australia. However, he has recently renamed it to the 'Nick Xenophon Team', and also announced that he will run Senate candidates in every state and House candidates in selected electorates.

How will this party do?

It is no secret that Nick Xenophon is very popular in South Australia. However, what is also noticeable is that there is a substantial gap between support for him and support for a ballot group with his name on it.

At the 2014 South Australian state election, the candidate who had been Xenophon's running mate (third position on the ticket, appointed to the Legislative Council), John Darley, was up for election. Darley ran as the 'Independent Nick Xenophon Team' candidate, which was his ballot description. The ticket received 12.9%, a halving of the vote from the 2013 federal election.

This is why a double dissolution is an advantage for Xenophon. Evidently, there is a dropoff in the Xenophon Team vote when Xenophon is not on the ballot paper. A double dissolution can allow Xenophon to avoid the Senate election when he is not personally on the ballot paper.

The exact effects of the dropoff are not entirely clear. However, as Xenophon is not running for the lower house, we will be able to see the exact effects of it in this election. I think it will be large enough to rule out a NXT candidate winning a lower house seat.

Maps thanks to Ben Raue of the Tally Room blog
The above maps show support for the Independent Nick Xenophon Team by South Australian state electorate. As you can see, the party's support is strongest in the south of Adelaide, and his support corresponds somewhat to the electoral district of Boothby. This district is held by Liberal MP Andrew Southcott, on a 7% margin.

The seats of Mayo and Sturt are also considered to be in contention for the Xenophon Team candidates. A seat poll in the electorate of Mayo in January had the Xenophon Team on 15.4%, to 17.9% for Labor and 43% for the Liberals. This is one of the few relevant (i.e. post-Abbott) seat polls that I have seen.

The key issue for Xenophon is the order in which they finish. In Sturt and Mayo, the Liberals are almost certain to finish in first place. If Labor finishes second, some of the Xenophon preferences are likely to flow to the Liberals ahead of Labor, while Labor preferences are likely to flow more strongly to Xenophon. This means that a high Labor vote could actually benefit the Liberals, and, accordingly, my advice to Liberals in Sturt and Mayo is to vote Labor. A strong Shorten campaign federally is therefore good news for (those particular) Liberals.

It is unclear whether, even if he wins seats, Xenophon will be able to hold his party together. Australian political parties heavily based around a personality, like One Nation and the Palmer United Party, have had trouble with defections. Xenophon himself has had vetting troubles; his running mate for the 2006 South Australian election, Ann Bressington, angrily attacked him soon after being elected. Whether he has learned anything from this episode is unclear; however, the odds are against the Xenophon Team being as disciplined a party as the major parties.