NSW NATIONALS Senator John “Wacka” Williams says Nick Xenophon hasn’t always got the details right when it comes to protecting the interests of Australian farmers, during his decade in federal politics.
While some hailed Senator Xenophon as a “champion” for primary producers, after it was revealed he’d be quitting the Senate to run for a SA lower house seat at the state election in March next year, Senator Williams was more cautious with his comments.
“The first question you ask is, why is he doing it?” he said of the shock move announced today.
“Perhaps to grow his party in SA?
“Nick has always been one who pushed the balance of power and when he entered the Senate in 2008, he was in a powerful position by holding one of the two balance of power votes.
“He obviously thinks it’s going to be a very close SA election result next year and no doubt he’d love to be the member for Hartley and have the balance of power in the SA parliament.”
If Senator Xenophon and his party claimed the balance of power in SA, it would also cast further doubt over moves by farm groups to end the state’s economically stifling ban on Genetically Modified crops, given his historic opposition to the technology.
SA and other state moratoriums on GM crops were highlighted by the Productivity Commission’s report into farm red and green tape released in March this year which said there was no economic or health and safety justification for banning approved GMs and the prohibitions should be removed.
“All state and territory governments should also repeal the legislation that imposes or gives them powers to impose moratoria on genetically modified organisms by 2018,” it said.
“The removal of the moratoria and repeal of the relevant legislation should be accompanied by coordinated communication strategies designed to increase public knowledge about the benefits and risks to the Australian community from genetic modification technologies.
“The Australian, state and territory governments, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and Food Standards Australia New Zealand should actively coordinate their communication strategies.”
While Senator Xenophon has a firm reputation for gaining media and voter attention, at times with unusual stunts – like hiring a flock of sheep to assist with a protest in California this weekend in supporting a small Australian Ugg boot manufacturer in their legal battle in the US over use rights to use the term “Ugg” in export marketing – his populist policy positions haven’t always been popular with the farm sector.
Senator Williams cited an anecdote in regards to Senator Xenophon’s opposition to live cattle and other livestock exports from Australia; despite economic benefits to farmers and incremental improvements in welfare standards in third world countries due to the trade.
Senator Williams said he gave the NXT leader a “big lecture one day”, on a Sunday afternoon after he’d watched Landline on ABC television, where Senator Xenophon had said he supported the banning of live sheep and cattle exports.
“I sent Nick a text message which said “Rural Australia now hates your guts” and then within 10 seconds he phoned me,” he said.
“My wife Nancy watched me walking up and down the back yard, giving him a lecture and saying ‘stay out of rural issues because you don’t understand them’.
“I gave Nick a real lecture on why his support for shutting down live exports was bad for farmers and bad for rural Australians.
“I’ve always got on with him well – but he finally got a realisation of what I meant when the Gillard government, through the former Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig, banned live cattle exports to Indonesia which cost rural and regional Australia hundreds of millions of dollars.”
SA Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham who has played a leading role in the Coalition on Murray Darling Basin issues had little praise for Senator Xenophon.
“The ultimate attention seeker is pulling another giant publicity stunt,” he said.
“Nick Xenophon who in 2007 cut and run from the South Australian Parliament just 18 months into an eight-year term saying that state politics was largely irrelevant and all the power resided in Canberra, is now cutting and running from the Federal Parliament just 12 months into a six-year term and saying he wants to come back to South Australia.
“When asked why he is making that change, what’s changed, what is driving him back here, he says it’s because things have gotten so bad.
“Well if things have gotten so bad, why is it that Nick Xenophon will not give a straight answer about who he will support to form government in South Australia?”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Senator Xenophon had had a successful career as a politician for sixteen years and now wanted to “have another crack” at being a politician at a State level.
“He's a very decent, pleasant fellow to deal with although I do understand Nick Xenophon has done more dud deals with Malcolm Turnbull than anyone ought to put up with so maybe he's decided, no more of that, time to move on to greener pastures,” he said.
“I am not going to say anything mean about his personality.”
Mr Shorten said he didn’t know what the NXT would now be called, without Senator Xenophon in the Senate.
“Are (they) going to call themselves now: 'The party who vote for the government whenever the government needs a vote'?” he said.
“I don't know: 'The Liberal Party more often than not people'? 'A vote you can have voting for the Liberals but not quite vote for Turnbull'?
“What I am focused on is not spending all our time complaining or talking about the mistakes of the government.
“Only two parties in this country can form a government; Turnbull's Liberals or Labor.”
The Australian Greens wished Senator Xenophon good luck with the new direction of his political career, with Greens Senator for South Australia Sarah Hanson-Young saying more non-major party MPs were needed in lower houses chambers across the country.
“More diversity in houses of government is good for democracy,” she said.
“Nick Xenophon has made a valued contribution to the Senate throughout his federal career.
“We have worked well together fighting for local jobs and protecting the Murray and while he and I were not on the same side on all issues, we share a passion for South Australia.
“While he leaves big shoes to fill, I’m determined that the Greens will ensure that South Australia continues to have a strong alternative voice in the Senate and the federal parliament.”
Senator Xenophon has also been a strong advocate for better country of origin food labelling standards to promote locally owned produce, spoken out against cheap imported products that threaten local farmers and also supported local manufacturing.
He also gained concessions during negotiations on the backpacker tax last year to start a trial to assist unemployed Australians take up work in farm labour, to help fill shortages in the agricultural workforce.