Could Napoleonic Xenophon be heading for his Waterloo?

Despite the presumptions of political pundits, Nick Xenophon has a fight on his hands to win the seat of Hartley, writes Liberal insider Robert Campbell.

Oct 12, 2017, updated Oct 12, 2017
Photo: AAP/Mick Tsikas

Photo: AAP/Mick Tsikas

Much like a HBO series involving the undead and dragons, the South Australian Parliament has only two settings: soul-crushingly pointless or the Red Wedding.

Last week, in a move that excited bloodthirsty armchair commentators and barstool psephologists, federal senator and stuntman extraordinaire Nick Xenophon announced his candidacy for the Liberal-held state seat of Hartley.

Only mere months out from the state election, things finally got more interesting than big batteries and Elon Musk.

Nick’s second coming to North Terrace was a bolt from the blue for any keen observer but especially so for Hartley incumbent Vincent Tarzia.

In midst of welfare checks from colleagues, prompt condolences from critics and staffers removing all pointy objects from his office, Tarzia hit back in less than 140 characters.

“Bring it on,” he thumbed defiantly, probably hunched over his phone and sweating profusely.

Guilty only of holding the seat in which Nick Xenophon resides, the Member for Hartley has been thrust into the political contest of his life. His leader has fallen into hysterics and party leaders are speaking about him in the past tense.

To many, it’s a fait accompli.

However, the Hartley campaign could actually prove to be Nick Xenophon’s Waterloo.

Beyond the market gardens of Campbelltown, a challenge in Morialta, a seat already extremely vulnerable to SA Best, would have been an easy feat for the former senator.

Vincent Tarzia is cashed up and well-supported. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Instead the popular independent faces a well-regarded, hardworking opponent with plenty of financial and physical resources.

Almost a tale of two campaigns, Tarzia’s grassroots game will be strong while Xenophon’s will depend largely on his mega media profile rather than shaking hands.

With a strong donor base and fundraising muscle, Tarzia’s campaign coffers are very well-funded for this stage of the cycle. He commands a legion of his own volunteers – including his near hundreds of pathologically supportive family and friends who helped him secure preselection in 2013.

With plenty of coin and foot soldiers, he won’t be an unexpected drain on the resources of Liberal Secretariat – something that could have furthered SA Best’s fortunes in other seats.

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While Xenophon jetted off for his unnecessary and somewhat disastrous United States sojourn, Tarzia was pounding the pavement in Paradise.

As Nick chased sheep through the streets of Los Angeles, Vincent popped into local birthday parties, drank countless cups of tea with elderly constituents and held his regular street corner meetings.

Despite being an architect of Rebekha Sharkie’s federal election win in Mayo, this is Xenophon’s virgin voyage as a lower house candidate.

A notorious micromanager, he will be wrangling up to 20 candidates in assorted seats come March. It’s easy to command from the lofty heights of the Senate; much harder when you’re on a lower house corflute yourself.

While there may be some lazy Liberals parked on the green benches, Tarzia has never been one.

After his failed experiment with delegation, which resulted in the near-selection of a candidate with some penchant for wax figure violence, he’ll want to be involved in every single decision in every single seat.

With the added pressure of his own marginal seat campaign, the maverick candidate risks becoming distracted, overstretched and exhausted before polling day.

Meanwhile, Tarzia’s world will start at Tranmere and end in Newton. He is not burdened by some pesky shadow portfolio; he’s beholden to no campaign but his own.

While there may be some lazy Liberals parked on the green benches, Tarzia has never been one. He has already campaigned methodically for four years to ward off any return of former foe and first scalp, Grace Portolesi.

Hartley may still change hands, as all sensible reporters predict, but if initial polls are accurate, Tarzia’s marginal lead on primaries is auspicious.

Preference deals are still yet to be done.

A Labor candidate is yet to be announced.

The seasoned strategists on Gilles Street know it’s far easier to dislodge a Liberal in 2022 than the godfather of independents with a four-year lead.

The reports of Vincent Tarzia’s political death are greatly exaggerated. Hartley is officially the one to watch.

Robert Campbell is the pseudonym of a sometime Liberal ministerial staffer.

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