A Question for Nick Xenophon

21 Apr 2016

Nick Xenophon is well known in Australia, having entered the Senate in 2007, and before that the South Australian Legislature in 1997, previously practising law. As he says, he carries the burden of the two most hated professions in Australia.

He stood for the Senate because he judged he could do more for South Australia, but clearly the position gives him a national context, placing him in a much bigger picture. As a senator he is often in the media and has appeared in Senate committees addressing a range of issues. His latest concerns give a good indication of his scope: Australia’s naval shipbuilding industry, the AFL’s growing dependence on gaming cash; parliamentary entitlements. Personally, I find myself concurring with his stance on the particular issues he engages.

In December 2014 he launched NXT, the Nick Xenophon Team, to offer ‘a commonsense, fair alternative to voters’. The need for the NXT alternative is set out in the campaign launch: ‘politics in Australia has become so toxic, so negative that it’s destroying our trust in our democracy, and the ability to fix the nation’s problems.’ Who could disagree?

In Xenophon’s view voters are sick of parties that promise one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards. And they’re sick of the sort of behaviour we see in parliament. Again, who could disagree?

People from Broome to Ballarat, from the top end to Tasmania, ask him if there will be an alternative in Canberra. NXT is his answer. Xenophon says the two-party system is so suffocating that politicians don’t do what they believe is the right thing. NXT, however, will be about centrist choices because according to Xenophon the choice shouldn’t be between Right and Left but between right and wrong. This sounds good, but how will NXT avoid the suffocating effect on its parliamentary members and what will count as right and wrong?

NXT is proudly independent. To potential donors they say: ‘You can give NXT money if you like what we do, but you can’t give us money to change what we do. We want donors not owners.’ NXT aims to be funded by small donations from ordinary Australians who want democracy to work. The aim is not to be the best party money can buy.

Xenophon wants his collaborative approach with other politicians to be continued. ‘The spirit of cooperation should be the norm not the exception.’ NXT is committed to ‘no spin’, ‘no fear campaigns’, and to not making opponents ‘look bad’. The hope is that like-minded people, standing in every state and territory and sharing a commonsense approach to politics, will make up NXT.

But there are questions. For instance, how will differences be handled?

There are nearly forty policy areas spelled out and made available on the NXT website, with a ‘core focus’ on three issues: predatory gambling, Australian made for Australian jobs, and government and corporate accountability. The framework, again, is for a commonsense approach to politics, with, according to the website, members working together to achieve a fair, like-minded consensus. But what does this mean? A lot of weight is being placed on ‘common-sense’ and ‘fairness’. Yet Nick is no neophyte in politics; he must know there will be differences, and that they can be very wearing, and sometimes very ugly, within parties.

All of this brings me to the question I want to ask Nick Xenophon. NXT is a new political party oriented to the whole nation, a remedy for the toxic state of national politics. Yet as I look through its policies and media releases I am left wondering what, politically, is its ‘big picture’ for Australia? Will policies be formed issue by issue as they come to light? Or is there an informing vision, or at least the roots of one, guiding NXT’s development?

NXT frequently uses the term ‘commonsense’ to describe both policies and the approach to policies. But commonsense is not a neutral term. To think and speak as if it had no provenance would be naïve. Which commons is NXT drawing on to shape its ‘commonsense’? Is NXT’s use of ‘commonsense’ at risk of yielding only incremental change around the edges of what we have come to take as political normality?

The question about ‘commonsense’ also goes to the value NXT places on its ‘independence’, which rightly includes finances. But surely there is more involved? Surely it includes ideological independence, which comes from having basic ideas that are central to the distinctive kind of national life and enabling politics that NXT wants to stand for.

More sharply, if NXT declares policy choices should be between right and wrong, not Right and Left, this suggests some implied standpoint (political, social, philosophical) that is at least tacitly informing choices between right and wrong. Can this be made explicit, and if so what form of national life will it show to be ‘right’ for us?

Lastly, Xenophon says he was reluctant to have his name used in the name of the political party but that he was persuaded it would be key to the group being publically recognised. Fair enough. But interestingly, the name ‘Xenophon’ means ‘strange voice’, a voice speaking outside the range of what people already know. Is this Nick’s voice? Will his voice be ‘strange’ enough to cut through the white noise of the toxic politics we currently experience and which is incapable of dealing with what is before us? How might such a ‘strange voice’ be strengthened and projected beyond a simple common sense?

‘Disruption’ is a word much favoured by the Federal Government for coming technological, economic and social changes to which, it is said, we must simply adjust. Might not the strange voice of NXT call for its own kind of disruption? Might it help us to see how and how much we have adjusted to our lack of a truly good life and what is needed to attain it? I wonder if NXT under the leadership of Nick Xenophon could make this kind of independent contribution to national life. Nick, what do you think?

– Stephen Ames

Categorised: Blog

Tagged: , , , ,

Comments closed