Nick Xenophon is one of the most influential people in Australian politics. Once a lawyer with a practice dealing with workers’ compensation and private injury claims, the senator sees himself as a politician of the centre. Certainly his voting record in the Senate has been split between the two major parties.
His foray into politics began at state level in South Australia in 1997, after he was peturbed with the rise of poker machines in his home state. Xenophon successfully ran as an independent for the South Australia State Legislative Council on an anti-poker machine ticket. He was there for a decade, and extended his platform from anti-gambling to include consumer protection and stopping political gravy trains. But in 2007 he resigned to seek a spot in the federal Senate in Canberra, saying he would “stick his neck out for South Australia”, out a focus on the Murray River’s water crisis and oppose unfair WorkChoices reforms.
He took up a federal Senate seat in 2008, sharing the balance of power with the Greens and Family First. The voters liked what they saw. He was re-elected in 2013 with 24.9 per cent of South Australians voting for him. That was second only to the Liberal Party’s Senate vote in South Australia, 20,000 more than Labor’s SA Senate vote, and more than triple what the Greens attracted.
He is now the leader of his own political party, the Nick Xenophon Team, which is fielding candidates in next federal election. This move, he says, was motivated by “the electorate’s lack of trust in politics and voter disillusionment” rather than anything to do with his ego.
One morning in April, AIM chief executive David Pich took a stroll to the Adelaide shops with Nick Xenophon. Among other things, Pich and the independent senator from South Australia discussed ethics, business, politics and leadership.
DAVID PICH: Is ethics at the core of your political being?
NICK XENOPHON: No, I wouldn’t say that because that makes me sound a bit sanctimonious. I’m not. I stuff up. I don’t actually think of it in those terms. I just think (when considering particular issues), is this fair to people? So if that’s an ethical basis, so be it.
DP: What does ethical leadership mean to you?
NX: This is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question. In some respects it’s a question of, you know, you can talk the talk but do you walk the walk? And I think it means, you’ve got to, if you stuff up, face responsibility for it.
I think the two issues of ethical leadership are: what do you [actually] do, and also how would you like to be treated?
I remember when I started off in politics at the state level, one Labor member told me there was a saying he liked to use, ‘Time wounds all heels’, which I kind of like. Another saying was ‘Revenge is a dish best served ice cold’. I don’t support that. I think that’s actually very destructive; people get consumed [by revenge] so I’ll take a lot of stuff on the chin and try to see the best in people.
There was a great valedictory speech from Senator Nick Minchin, called by some a right-wing warrior, who I found to be a decent man. His advice to us, his colleagues, was: “Remember the virtue of earning the respect of your colleagues on all sides of the chamber – earn their respect for your integrity, your decency, your passion, your commitment to your ideals and your willingness to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I don’t take myself that seriously, but I take what I do very seriously. Sometimes being a bit self-deprecating doesn’t hurt, especially if you’re on the crossbench. Sometimes I make some fun of some situations, such as when I wore pyjamas [during the all-night sitting of the Senate to debate voting law changes]. I was trying to make a point about the absurdity of it, and I know one of my colleagues thought that it was a pretty lowbrow thing to do. I think it’s actually more lowbrow to abuse people and to vilify them in the chamber. I was trying to make a point.
DP: Do you think that there is a crisis of ethics in companies, as well as in politics?
NX: I think there is a crisis of leadership and that’s tied up with a crisis of ethics. Almost 20 years ago social researcher Hugh Mackay wrote an article called “The Lying Game”. It’s as valid now as when it was written, because with every broken promise, every policy U-turn, people feel more aggrieved and disconnected from the political system.
Whatever you may have thought of John Howard, at least after reneging on his no-GST promise, he actually fought an election on it and nearly lost.
DP: So what do you think we’ve learnt from corporate scandals?
NX: I think sadly what politicians have learnt best, is how to maximise the political advantage from those scandals. It’s almost as though it’s not about learning from those scandals so not to repeat them in the future, but rather, how can we embarrass that person who was caught out. It’s almost as though we just lurch from crisis to crisis.
DP: Should an ICAC – an Independent Commission Against Corruption [like in New South Wales] – be extended federally?
NX: The ICAC has done some incredibly valuable work but it can also destroy some people’s reputations unfairly, and I think you need to get that balance right.
DP: I know that in your life before politics you did some teaching of law and you taught some of our politicians, such as Christopher Pyne. Do you think ethics can be taught?
NX: I put my hand on my heart and say I taught Christopher Pyne everything he doesn’t know.
Seriously, I think you can teach ethics, but people need to be aware of the consequences of their actions, whether it’s reputational harm, legal sanctions or being struck down as a director. There is a culture of blame and finger pointing, coupled with an absence of responsibility and consequences.
DP: You’re looking to set up your own political party. How will you maintain ethical standards?
NX: The Nick Xenophon Team will be called something else after the next election. It makes me uncomfortable having my name used, but I’m just being brutally pragmatic in terms of getting the message across.
I’ve chosen people who I believe broadly support the core principles of a future for local manufacturing, transparency and honesty in government, and being anti-predatory gambling, which is a failure on the part of the government, which is willing to rake in taxes off the backs of the vulnerable and the addicted.
DP: Who do you admire in politics?
NX: I’ve got this thing about Jerry Brown. I’ve been a long-time admirer since I was a teenager. Jerry Brown was one of the youngest-ever governors of California in the 1970s. He was in his mid thirties at the time and had previously studied to be a Jesuit priest. He is a Democrat who is fiscally prudent but is socially liberal.
He made a comeback in 2010 when he ran for governor of California, at the age of 72, and was re-elected, even though his opposition was Meg Whitman [a former chief executive of eBay, who spent more of her own money than any politician before her on that race]. He didn’t really spend much money on his re-election campaign because people just knew his substance. I regard him as a statesman. He is one of these people that I want to meet. He is on my bucket list.
DP: That’s a nice segue to talk about Donald Trump.
NX: What Trump has said about immigration, about Muslims, is absolutely outrageous. I’ve been compared to Donald Trump by my political opponents, which I find to be political hysteria and desperation to compare me to him. Firstly, I don’t have anything like Donald Trump’s money or his gravity-defying hair.
DP: Trump is funding his own campaign. Do you think the public over there [in the US] are jaded by this idea of politicians being bought by big business?
NX: I think that they are. America has got the best democracy that money can buy.
DP: You’ve been a long-term advocate of changing the whistleblowing laws.
NX: This is something I’ve been advocating for years and we are now getting to a tipping point. Greg Medcraft, the chair of ASIC [Australian Securities and Investments Commission], gave a speech at the end of last year saying we need to have whistleblower protection laws where there is compensation.
“If you want to tackle corruption you need to have a culture of openness and you need to allow people to come forward to speak the truth.”
There’s this great quote from the old UK political warhorse Tony Benn. It goes: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”
If you have decent whistleblower protection laws similar to those in the US, where whistleblowers are compensated from the damages, it really makes a huge difference for people [making the decision about] coming forward, whether they are in government, in a union or in the corporate sphere.
At the moment we can’t guarantee people’s incomes, and a lot of people just suffer in silence and won’t speak out. If you want to tackle corruption you need to have a culture of openness and you need to allow people to come forward to speak the truth.
There’s this big debate about the ABCC [the Australian Building and Construction Commission] and very soon we’ll have an idea of what’s happening. I’m conscious of the fact that building sites can be dangerous places and unions do have a legitimate role in terms of occupational health and safety, but I think that what has happened on building sites is bad for the country. There has been bad behaviour [and] it would be foolish to ignore the recommendations of the Royal Commission.