This week the Australian Electoral Commission formally began the process to transform the now figurehead-less ‘Nick Xenophon Team’ into the rather more loosely defined ‘Centre Alliance’.
The renamed party is seeking to brand itself with a new logo — two concentric circles, apparently representing a target.
The new logo is quite fitting — as the party’s sole Lower House seat holder Rebekha Sharkie now finds herself a target of the Liberal Party after being forced to relinquish her Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo over doubts about her citizenship.
The resulting by-election is set to provide another test for Ms Sharkie and her colleagues just weeks after Nick Xenophon’s bid to return to state politics at the March 17 South Australian election crashed and burned.
Here are the key things to watch:
NXT’s Annus Horribilus
Ms Sharkie’s forced resignation caps off a forgettable 12 months for South Australia’s third party political force, the Nick Xenophon Team (which goes under the banner SA-BEST at state level).
First there were the doubts over then senator Xenophon’s citizenship. He was ultimately cleared, but then quit the Senate to run for State Parliament.
Former South Australian senator Nick Xenophon’s mission to seize the balance of power in South Australia’s Lower House flamed out, with not a single one of the party’s 36 House of Assembly candidates elected. (ABC News: Matthew Roberts)
His mission to seize the balance of power in South Australia’s Lower House flamed out, with not a single one of the party’s 36 House of Assembly candidates elected. SA Best did claim a consolation prize, with two members elected to the state’s Upper House.
Prior to the election, the party had already endured the acrimonious departure of its sole State Parliamentary representative John Darley, who quit declaring Mr Xenophon a dictator.
He wasn’t the only one to exit the party — former Senate candidate Tim Storer left the fold after being passed over for Mr Xenophon’s Senate vacancy.
That became especially awkward when another NXT Senator, Skye Kakoschke-Moore discovered she was a dual citizen and ruled ineligible.
The High Court elected Mr Storer to fill her Senate seat. He does so now as an independent.
Now it’s Ms Sharkie’s turn to fall on her sword, but as a Lower House MP, it will be up to voters to select her replacement.
What’s in a name?
Alexander Downer’s daughter, Georgina Downer, appears to be the frontrunner as the pre-select candidate for Mayo. (Facebook)
The Liberal Party has yet to pre-select a candidate for Mayo, but the front runner appears to be Melbourne-based lawyer, former diplomat and conservative think-tank fellow Georgina Downer.
And why not?
For most of its existence, the seat of Mayo was held by her father, former foreign minister and one time Liberal leader Alexander Downer.
Her grandfather, Sir Alick Downer, a former immigration minister occupied the now abolished regional seat of Angas, which extended into the territory which is now Mayo.
And her great-grandfather, Sir John Downer, was the 13th premier of South Australia.
Will Georgina add to the Downer dynasty? Or are voters keen to continue the experiment of a non-Liberal, non-Downer representative?
Will Labor vacate the field?
By-elections can be funny beasts.
They tend to attract scrutiny, and an influx of candidates from non-traditional quarters.
Sometimes in a by-election in a traditionally ‘safe’ seat, the opposing major party will vacate the field. Think the Liberals choosing not to run a candidate in the recent Batman by-election, leaving Labor to slug it out with the Greens.
Labor opted not to run in the last Mayo by-election a decade ago. That poll saw the Greens’ Lynton Vonow come within a few per cent of the winner, Liberal Jamie Briggs.
Labor won’t win the seat, but will be tempted to run to give its voters the option to send a message. It wouldn’t want to diminish Ms Sharkie’s chances though.
Ms Sharkie won the seat in 2016 against Mr Briggs who suffered huge swings against him after being embroiled in scandal. It remains to be seen what extent her victory was a factor of his unpopularity.
Josh Wilson and Rebekha Sharkie both resigned from Parliament this week. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)
Polls! Who can you trust?
Most political watchers would concede Ms Sharkie has built a strong profile as a popular local member.
A YouGov/Galaxy poll taken in January had her ahead 59-41 against the Liberals on a two party-preferred basis. But that was without a declared Liberal candidate.
And the same set of polling had her party on track to win two state seats — and we know how that turned out.
The state election result also throws up a number of questions for Ms Sharkie’s party — will voters still see it as a viable option? Have they heard of the Centre Alliance? Will they support it without the presence of Nick Xenophon? Will he remain in his self imposed political X-ile, or will he return to the trenches
to help his running mate? Does she want his support? Can the party afford to fund a decent campaign?
We’re about to find out.
Why were the Liberals circling Sharkie?
One of the interesting side-scripts to this contest is Ms Sharkie’s history with the Liberal Party.
It’s been revealed the former Liberal staffer had recently been the subject of an approach from SA Liberal Party president John Olsen to sound her out about rejoining.
Stories differ about who made the first approach — was this a minor party MP seeking a lifeboat, or a government seeking to co-opt a pesky crossbencher, rather than wage a messy war in a seat it would otherwise hold?
Time will tell — but either narrative could provide fascinating fodder in the upcoming battle for Mayo.