Royce Kurmelovs recalls working for Nick Xenophon at the time of Donald Trump’s election, and examines the difference between the two populist politicians, in an extract from his latest book Rogue Nation: Dispatches from Australia’s Populist Uprisings and Outsider Politics.
The morning after the US election result was known, a subdued Senator Nick Xenophon made his way downstairs from his Senate suite to the Senate entrance, as usual, where a bank of TV cameras was waiting, as usual. It was the mood that was unusual that day: sullen and depressed. It was all pervasive, across the entire building, and even the irrepressible Nick Xenophon seemed flat.
“I wonder why everyone is so down?” he asked no one in particular and no one replied.
No one could believe Trump was President, least of all the senator from South Australia, who in the weeks leading up to the vote had joked that if Trump actually won, he would have his mate Bruno, the bobcat driver, build him a bunker in his backyard so he could wait out the coming radioactive storm. Everyone, including me, thought Bruno was a character Nick had invented to get the attention of the commercial television networks, which lapped it up. Then one day I caught the screen of his smartphone as Bruno called to ask what Nick was doing blasting his name across all major news networks.
“Mate, I’m giving you free advertising,” Nick told him.
Xenophon was no Trump. He may have shared similar views on the value of manufacturing as an essential component of the economy, but everything else about the man offended everything Nick respected in a politician, and a person.
He, as it happened, had been a Bernie Sanders guy. He saw in the socialist senator from Vermont someone willing to challenge the basic assumptions of American political life, and he respected that. Sanders may have called himself a socialist, but he was calling for a fairer America in a way that would not be out of place in the right wing of the Labor Party, or even the left wing of the Libs, as far as Nick was concerned.
After Bernie failed to make the cut, Hillary was the next-best option. She may not have been inspiring, she may not have been charismatic, but she certainly was better than Trump, a man Nick considered wildly irrational and painfully deceptive.
“There’s no way Trump can win,” Nick once said as he walked into the office and gazed up at the television screen, which was playing a news report about the US election in the lead-up to the vote. “No way.”
When Trump did, it seemed to change everything. Nick was a twenty-year veteran of state and federal parliaments. He had started his career as a crusading personal-injury lawyer, until he took his fight to the South Australian state parliament on a single issue and discovered an identity as a crusading politician who always went down swinging. It was poker machines that launched his career in those days, but that didn’t stop him taking on other issues he felt actually mattered to ordinary people, such as ticket scalping and reliability of the electricity grid.
Journalist Royce Kurmelovs briefly worked as a staffer for Nick Xenophon
Then, as now, reporters would parachute in from the big east-coast cities to write about the one-man band with a degree of fascination. They wanted to watch him work, so they came to observe his quirks and habits and decide for themselves whether he was just another crazy member of the Senate crossbench, or something else entirely.
They would learn how Nick Xenophon didn’t drink coffee but had a sweet tooth, and how he loathed being called Senator and asked them to call him Nick. It was a policy I assumed he had picked up to keep him grounded, in the same way political advisor Louis Howe would humble US President Franklin D. Roosevelt by refusing to use his title and only speaking to him as Franklin. In the time they would spend together, Nick would overwhelm with courtesy and care. He cracked jokes, apologised unnecessarily and got personally involved in the lives of those his office helped. When his quirks weren’t enough, reporters focused on his origins. They learned that he was born in 1959 to parents who had met at a bus stop on Magill Road; that his father had made a business developing a block of land at Magill; that he was raised Greek Orthodox but wasn’t devout and never flaunted it; and that he had been private school educated. Then they wanted to know about his university days, and how he had been a member of the Young Liberals who had flirted with Labor but would later decide on neither.
Whatever they asked, he always had a line in reserve.
“Some kids do drugs, I was a member of the Young Liberals,” he would tell them when they asked about his time with the Liberal Party.
They would ask about that time he taught law to Christopher Pyne, and what he had been like as a student during his time at university, way back before Pyne became a minister.
“I taught him everything he doesn’t know,” was all that Nick would say. Almost always, he defied expectation. Those who loathed him the most tended to be ideological warriors and political purists who took one look at the man and instantly imagined him in the likeness of their most convenient enemy. To those on the left, he was right wing and a secret Liberal.
To those on the right, he was an anti-market protectionist, a vicious slur in their world; they talked about him in the same frothy language the left reserves for racists.
What most of these people wanted was a man who was clearly left or right, but Nick Xenophon would always surprise. One analysis of his voting patterns during July 2014 and March 2016 published by The Guardian’s Datablog found he was in agreement with the Greens 67 per cent of the time, Labor 54 per cent and Liberal 39 per cent.
His unpredictability was amplified by his habit of holding back until he saw an opening. He never declared a position on an issue when he felt there were too many variables in play to get a sense of what the outcome would be. When someone made a misstep he never denounced them, and in doing so he always kept open the possibility of redemption. When he was attacked, he rarely hit back, instead using the display to paint himself as the underdog.
Nick Xenophon’s innovation was his keen sense of marketing and an early recognition that politics was rapidly reshaping around the question of how to manage the process of globalisation. Adelaide was his city and it lay at the end of a major river system, with a dying manufacturing base and rising unemployment. Every day, its best sons and daughters were boarding planes to Melbourne. His politics attempted to walk the line between left and right, moving nimbly between the issues to get the best result.
So to the public he spoke plainly, he was hardworking and he made a point of being seen to be hardworking. At his best, there were almost daily press conferences, and he led the news on every channel, even as reporters on the political beat whispered about getting yet another call to another goddamn Nick Xenophon presser.
But then, he understood something about politics most did not: if a politician writes a letter to a minister on an issue, and no one hears about it on the evening news, did it make a sound?
With this, he took up causes big and small. For subcontractors in the building industry, he wanted to set up a regime to ensure they got paid, even after a company that contracted them had collapsed. For young people he had waged a decade-long fight over ticket scalping, writing to Adele’s management for a meeting with the singer. For general aviation pilots, he dressed down the CEO of Qantas in a speech given to an aviation industry dinner where he was in attendance. In 2009 he started a public fight with Scientology when no one else would, calling them a cult and denouncing their cruelty. For an ice addict whose life was slowly crumbling under the weight of her addiction, he was willing to fight what seemed to most of his electorate office staff to be a lost cause.
“My job is to help get people through the door so that they have a chance,” he once scolded me. “We help people. That’s what we do.”
And if anyone ever doubted the courage of his convictions, he could always point to how he had been tear-gassed in Kuala Lumpur and banned from Malaysia over his support for his friend, dissident Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim. Or how in 2009 he was willing to hold up former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s $1 billion stimulus package until Rudd allocated more funding to help the Murray River. Or how he had released his entire personal tax return to Laurie Oakes and had offered it to other reporters to demonstrate his commitment to transparency.
All of which played well to every voter who had watched a politician make big promises to get elected and do a lot of nothing about it once in office.
* * *
Trump, though he may have been a world away, seemed to up-end everything Nick knew about electoral politics. He was struggling to process the change that had taken place that first week when senior Fairfax political reporter Peter Hartcher pinned him down for a quiet interview late one evening in the staff cafeteria.
Hartcher is a legend, though I did not know his mythology when I sat down next to him. He is a precise, neatly groomed, soft-spoken man who keeps a tiny notebook in the breast pocket of his suit jacket in which he writes tiny, exact script. That week he was talking about the same thing everyone else was: Trump.
Trump was the man who had ridden a wave of discontent into office, but wasn’t Nick Xenophon doing the same with his baby political party, the Nick Xenophon Team? The party had secured three Senate seats and a seat in the House of Representatives at the last federal election, in a state that at times felt like the rest of Australia was abandoning it.
So, Hartcher wanted to know, what did Nick Xenophon truly think of Donald Trump?
“You know, his slogan, ‘Drain the Swamp,” I think there’s probably a good line in that,” Nick Xenophon said. “Trump says he is trying to drain the swamp, but he’s going to swim in it. He’s going to be doing backstroke through it.”
He stopped himself.
“That doesn’t quite work, I need to play with that a bit more.”
What he was trying to say was that while Donald Trump may have campaigned on a promise to drain the swamp, in the end, he was going to bathe in it. Trump’s network of corporate and business connections, and his complete disregard for truth, meant that it wouldn’t take long before influence peddlers and cronyism set in.
But then, Donald Trump’s essential character wasn’t what caused Nick so much trouble in the immediate aftermath of Election Day. True to form, the first thing he had done once he knew the outcome was to put out a press release calling for the US–Australian alliance to be revisited on the basis that Donald Trump was so reckless, it was a real possibility that he could end up dragging Australia into a catastrophic war, though the concept of a nuclear holocaust wasn’t what gripped him most. Instead it was the very notion of a ‘post-truth politics’ that grabbed at the heart of Nick Xenophon. In all his personal dealings, he placed a premium on truth and verifiable fact. Losing his trust lost it forever. This was a quality he projected out onto the world and it meant his office was expert in the art of the Freedom of Information request. Any rat who wound up being cross-examined by Senator Nick Xenophon during a Senate Estimates committee hearing would take their seat at the bench knowing it was just a matter of time before he would draw his claws and pounce.
For him, to watch a politician lie so openly and shamelessly through an election campaign was truly alarming. If a candidate in a stable liberal-democracy could say anything and still take power, where was the limit? How do you campaign against someone like that? Any voter listening to a Trump campaign speech would simply hear what they wanted to hear and dismiss the rest as campaign rhetoric. And how could someone like that possibly be restrained by embarrassment or shame once in power? The potential damage that person could do was immeasurable.
What if it happened here?
These were tactics Nick had experienced to some extent during the 2016 federal election, he told Hartcher, when Labor effectively inoculated its base against the appeal of voting for the NXT (Nick Xenophon Team) by claiming its leader wanted to abolish penalty rates and had voted to privatise ETSA (Electricity Trust of South Australia) in the ’90s. Both claims were false, and despite the damage, out of that election Senators Stirling Griff and Skye Kakoschke-Moore were elected to the Senate, and Rebekha Sharkie made it into the Lower House.
“I think everything is changing,” Nick said, towards the end of their conversation. “We saw the first-term Campbell Newman government thrown out in Queensland with something like a 20 per cent swing. I don’t know what is going to happen. It’s all or nothing. I think no one is safe right now. Everyone’s seat is up for grabs, including mine.”
This is an edited extract of Rogue Nation: Dispatches from Australia’s Populist Uprisings and Outsider Politics, published by Hachette Australia. Rogue Nation is now available.