The Ultimate Veto

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It’s a busy Thursday afternoon in the office of the Xenophon and Co law firm, which is where I find the man who is about to become one of the most powerful legislators in the country. The receptionist doesn’t know anything about our interview, but when she puts me through to Senator-elect Nick Xenophon, he’s all business.

"You know The Australian is doing a big spread on me this weekend," he says straight away, disarmingly, just in case that might change my line of questioning for this interview. "They’re dredging up old stuff from student politics," he continues matter-of-factly.

Nick Xenophon is suddenly in the spotlight, as the most important independent Senator since Brian Harradine.

Xenophon’s massive primary vote in South Australia — he polled better than Penny Wong — split the normal major party duopoly and indirectly helped 26-year-old Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young into the last seat on the South Australian ticket. Now Kevin Rudd will need Xenophon’s vote on every single piece of legislation he hopes to pass.

It’s not so much the balance of power as the ultimate veto.

The outlines of Xenophon’s career are now becoming better known. Briefly involved with the Liberals at university, Xenophon was Editor of the University of Adelaide student newspaper, On Dit. Xenophon calls it a "youthful indiscretion". He argues he also attended Labor and Democrats meetings, before settling down to a career in the law.

During the 1980s and 90s, Xenophon developed a successful career as a personal injury lawyer. It’s a somewhat uncommon path to politics in Australia (although Julia Gillard was a partner at Slater & Gordon, she worked primarily in industrial relations) — unlike in the United States, where several former trial lawyers and state attorneys like John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani have gone on to make names for themselves in politics.

It was reportedly the experience of one of Xenophon’s clients, who had a gambling addiction, that first prompted his interest in poker machines. Elected to South Australia’s upper house on an anti-gambling platform in 1997, he quickly made a name for himself on an issue few State governments have been prepared to address. "I was known as the No Pokies MP," he freely admits.

Xenophon is frank in discussion and surprisingly agile in his command of the policy details. He essentially brings only two policy priorities to Canberra: gambling and water.

On gambling, Xenophon points to books like Robert Goodman’s The Luck Business and the groundbreaking 1999 Productivity Commission report into problem gambling, Australia’s Gambling Industries. Xenophon wants Federal legislation to outlaw ATM access inside gambling establishments. "Close to 60 per cent of problem gamblers access ATMs" during a typical gaming session, he argues.

"There were two factors that led to a tipping point in my running for the Senate," he says. "Firstly the High Court WorkChoices decision made it clear that the Commonwealth can use the Constitution’s corporations power to override State legislation."

"The second aspect of it was there were statements by Kevin Rudd and Peter Costello about the damage caused by poker machines, and the realisation that States are hopelessly compromised by the taxes they rake in over pokie machines — in NSW $1 billion a year."

"I thought the last, best hope to wind back the damage caused by poker machines was in Federal Parliament."

Xenophon’s other agenda is water — an issue of special concern in South Australia. "We’re at the tail-end of a once-great river system," he says. "We have borne the brunt of the mismanagement of the Murray by State and Federal governments. It needs a national approach. My short term goal is to ensure that the permanent plantings in the Riverland don’t die."

"If we don’t get some emergency assistance now, the cost of picking up the pieces will far exceed what we’re spending now, in Centrelink payments for the thousands of irrigators and people who draw their livelihoods from the river."

Xenophon has been influenced by the work of Professor Mike Young, Research Chair of Water Economics and Management at the University of Adelaide. "We’ve got to get it right and we’re running out of time. We’ve only got a few more months before the lower lakes suffer irreversible damage."

I ask if Xenophon has been out to see the lower lakes of the Murray. He has. "They are pretty awful in terms of mud and sludge and acid sulfate soil. In the Riverland people are pulling out trees, they’re on a knife edge and they’re praying for rain. It’s very grim."

His policy prescriptions on the issue are threefold:

"Number one: you need to fast-track water conservation measures. You have the absurd meandering channels in Victoria and NSW. Secondly you have irrigators who use the water inefficiently instead of using state-of-the-art systems like Israeli drip irrigation. [And thirdly], you have the whole issue of water being diverted out of the system — the so-called turkey dams up in Queensland. They’re just three things that need to be tackled."

It’s a big challenge for a nation which has found water reform an historically difficult policy problem. Nearly as big as climate change, to which Xenophon refers several times during our interview. So, I take it he is not a climate change sceptic?

"To the sceptics I say that one of the best comments I heard was from Rupert Murdoch, who said that even if you accept there’s only a 30 per cent chance of global warming then you must, from a risk-management point of view, do everything possible to avoid that happening. Even if it was a 1 per cent chance that we could face catastrophic consequences of global warming, we need from a risk-management approach to prevent that from happening."

Xenophon is talking like a Greens Party member, but he insists he is firmly in the centre of politics. "Look, I don’t want to be tied down to a particular ideology, I want to be an independent, I think that I’m pretty much in the middle. Some people have called me a social conservative — I don’t support voluntary euthanasia legislation, but I am sympathetic to stem cell research because of the hope it offers."

What then is Xenophon’s position on that other pressing social issue, Kevin Rudd’s alcopops tax increase?

"Look, there’s clearly a binge drinking problem in the country, but I want to weigh up the options. This is about problematic drinking. I think that report [from the National Health and Medical Research Council]that says four drinks is binge drinking, that’s not about reducing harm, that’s about labelling people. My initial concern is that the Government is looking at $3 billion in revenue and there’s only $70 million going to be spent on harm minimisation programs — which is consistent with what the Greens and Family First have said on this issue."

In a sign that could pose future problems for Labor, Xenophon is keen to work with the minor parties in the Senate. "I want to work with both the Government and my cross-bench colleagues. I’ve met with Steve Fielding and I know Bob Brown and I’m keen to have a good and constructive relationship with both the Greens and Family First."

Even so, is Xenophon ready for the scrutiny that holding the balance of power will bring?

"I had a Senator-elect [tell me that]I have no idea what’s going to hit me, and I said ‘Yes I do — it’s going to be ugly.’"

Nevertheless, Xenophon gives every impression of being prepared. "I’d rather be in a position where my views and votes matter rather than being on the periphery."

From today, that’s exactly where Nick Xenophon will be.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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