Senator X – a rolling stone gathers no policies

by Malcolm King

There is no doubt that Senator Xenophon has the South Australia public and media in his pocket.  More than 150,000 voters and 50 journalists whose contact books automatically open to the letter X can't be wrong, can they?

"My political philosophy is summed up by the myth of Sisyphus, the story of this poor bastard that was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill. And I feel like I'm rolling that boulder up to the top of the hill, never getting to the crest. But I'll still keep going," he said recently in the media.

Unfortunately Senator Xenophon will have to keep rolling that stone a little longer as the Greens have taken the balance of power in the Senate. It's a kick in the guts for South Australians who placed so much faith in the Anti-Pokies campaigner.

Senator Xenophon entered politics because as a lawyer in the south of Adelaide, he saw clients blowing hard won claims and superannuation payouts on pokie machines.

But we need to look closer at Mr X's legislative record as some suggest, at least on the issue of Pokies, that Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie has achieved more in his 10 months in Federal Parliament than Senator Xenophon ever did.

If getting legislation passed is the touchstone of a success for a politician then Senator Xenophon is in real trouble as none of his Private Members Bills (at this stage) have been enacted in to law.

A list of Senator Xenophon's Private Member's Bills can be found at http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Browse/Results/ByPrivateMembers/Bills/Current/XENOPHON/0

Only 15 private member's bills or private senator's bills introduced into the Australian Parliament since 1901 have become law. In the parlance, it's a 'big ask' to get a Private Member's Bill through.

Tim Costello, a prominent social justice advocate, calls Senator Xenophon the Greek Woody Allen. Unfortunately Senator Xenophon has had as much success as Woody Allen in the Westminster system and his 'calls' for action have produced little of substance.

Even so, he has gotten a Senate inquiry up into pilot training and general aviation safety. He was also instrumental in getting better shield laws to protect journalists and their sources, which as a joint Private Members Bill with Andrew Wilkie, might pass later this year.

Senator Xenophon also forced the Government to release the NBN Business Plan, which was a victory for transparency.

Yet one senses that the South Australian public doesn't really care. They just want to know that he's 'fighting the good fight'.

Mr X and the media

For people outside of South Australia this might seem a bit twee – a bit 'try hard'. And they are right. It's hard to sustain the Henry V 'warrior of the working day' lingo when so much of the edifice is supported by considerable rhetoric.

There is a curious pattern about Senator Xenophon's public statements. They almost always come after a media story on the same issue. While I am not suggesting that Senator Xenophon is 'fishing' for media exposure, he is certainly adept at attracting TV cameras for one-liners.

In part, this is typical of a lone Senator who has a single-issue supporter base. He doesn't have a political party machine to generate the headlines.

Below is a rough snapshot in chronological order of Senator Xenophon's announcements going back 18 months. It is far from complete but it's a fair sample of his public statements.

Calls to action

2011

  • Senator Nick Xenophon calls for an independent inquiry to determine why Agape leader was allowed to leave Australia.
  • Introduces a bill to parliament banning live animal exports.
  • Calls the competition watchdog "a toothless chihuahua" against the market domination of Coles and Woolworths.
  • Calls for a public inquiry into rail infrastructure.
  • Pushes for legislation to introduce mandatory palm oil labeling in Australia.
  • Proposes changes so that creditors could protect farmer's taxpayer-funded exit grants from claims.
  • Calls for betting ban on interest rate rises.
  • Calls for concessions to farmers who made early investments in on-farm water efficiency measures, during the Murray Darling Basin's water reform processes.
  • Seeks an upper house inquiry after concerns the major supermarkets are driving out competition.
  • Calls for a government agency to be set up to "monitor and control the activities of cults in Australia". Also calls for law reform to protect "vulnerable individuals from cult activities."
  • Proposes to introduce a Bill that aims to crack down on cheap imports.

2010

  • Called for urgent overhaul of sports betting laws in the wake of the Melbourne Storm scandal.
  • Called for a website so taxpayers have up-to-date information on where and when their political representatives are travelling
  • Called for new federal election campaign laws to prevent the distribution of misleading how-to-vote cards in key marginal seats in SA.
  • Proposed to block key national broadband network (NBN) legislation in 2011 because it would allow special treatment for Telstra.
  • Moved a Private Members Bills to jail Internet predators who lie about their age to children on the Internet.

There are scores of references to Senator Xenophon 'calling' for this or that since he took his seat in 2008.

It's hard to know whether legislation and political controversy exist for Senator Xenophon to make media mileage out of them or whether Senator Xenophon exists as a cipher for the psychological projections of 'hard-done-by' battlers in the southern suburbs of Adelaide.

Hijacking the stimulus package

The one area that the Senator did have a major 'success' was holding the Federal Government to ransom by threating to not pass the urgent Stimulus Package in the wake of the GFC.

He got $900 million of accelerated funding for the Murray-Darling Basin. The money had already been previously promised but it was a 'victory' of sorts.

Should a single senator hold a government 's national $42 billion rescue package to ransom? Senator Xenophon is merely following in former Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine's footsteps. This shows how far the Senate has mutated from representing the interests of the states, to now blocking economic pump priming legislation.

Senator Xenophon's use of the media is curious because it has all of the hallmarks of a 'sideshow'. In South Australia he is lauded because he tells it 'like it is' or at least his version of how it is – or was.

He slings off at political leaders, their advisers and party technocrats who are poll and focused group obsessed. He is 'everyman', a battler and a warrior (or worrier) for truth.

His populist announcements and his media stunts appeal to both the media and the common man. In a memorable stunt, Senator Xenophon used 'Zorba the Goat' (a real goat) to prove he was "not kidding around" in the 2006 South Australian election. He won an astounding 20.5 per cent of the vote.

While Lindsay Tanner's book SideshowDumbing Down Democracy was critical of the way the media trivialized political debate, Senator Xenophon uses the media to draw the audience over to his personal brand of political performance. His pronouncements are rarely treated with scrutiny because, after all, he represents the 'battlers'.

''The contest of ideas is being supplanted by the contest for laughs,'' Tanner writes. He blames the ''sideshow syndrome'' where the media set up the tricks and holds up the hoops and the politicians cheerfully jump through them to win public attention."

Whether the media is ignoring or "dumbing down" politics, they are all trying to arrest the departure of their audiences in a fragmenting media landscape.

Increasingly, in a post-broadcast, post-regulation media market, organisations feel justified in delivering what they think their audience wants, and by and large that is not serious policy discussion. This is where Senator Xenophon finds his home. He doesn't deliver legislation. He delivers entertainment.

One doesn't gain a sense that power is Senator Xenophon's drug. It seems that he just likes the attention.

Malcolm King runs Republic Media, an educational marketing and PR business. He was a senior media adviser to the ALP and the Democrats and was the writing programs director at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He also worked as a journalist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide.
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