Nick Xenophon to quit Senate and run for state seat of Hartley

Australia's most influential independent political force, Nick Xenophon, has decided to quit federal politics to contest South Australia's March election, hoping to land a balance-of-power role that will decide not only which side forms government but what policies they can pursue.

The bold move threatens to turn the state poll - a race between a Labor government first elected in 2002, and a mistake-prone Liberal opposition struggling to inspire voters - into a three-way contest.

Minority government of one stripe or other now looms as the most likely outcome.

Senator Xenophon said he wanted to provide voters with an alternative because Labor was taking the state down the wrong path and the Liberals offered only a dead end.

Among the reasons provided was the statewide blackout in September 2016 and soaring energy prices.

"Just keeping the lights on over the next summer will be presented by the government as a major achievement to be lauded and applauded. It's embarrassing," he said, calling that the "triumph of low expectations".

The stunning announcement came just a week before his eligibility - and that of six other federal parliamentarians - is due to be tested in the High Court after it emerged he had unwittingly held a form of UK citizenship passed on from his father.

He will remain in the Senate until that case is decided.

The timing of the switch has inevitably fuelled suspicions that the leader of the Nick Xenophon Team is pessimistic of his chances and has moved to avoid the embarrassment of a negative result ahead of the hearing.

But he rejected that, insisting that he fully expected to win his case in the High Court. Rather, he claimed the citizenship focus, which he described as an enormous distraction, had actually delayed his Senate resignation.

"While my lawyers are confident I will succeed, whatever the outcome, once that decision is handed down I will be in a position to leave the Senate," he told a media conference in Adelaide's parklands.

A win in the north-eastern Adelaide Liberal-held electorate of Hartley, would see him return to North Terrace where his political career began.

However this time it would be as a lower house MP and leader of SA Best - the name he has given his state grouping - rather than as a "No Pokies" member of the Legislative Council.

He called the decision a big gamble and the fight of his political life, predicting neither side would welcome his involvement.

"They don't want their cosy little duopoly broken up. I'm sure they will throw everything at us," he said.

Senator Xenophon said he was a proud South Australian who had always had a strong local focus, nominating among his achievements in Canberra, the securing of almost $1 billion for down river communities and the environment in protracted Murray-Darling Basin reform negotiations.

Making the decision public, the South Australian said he intended to continue playing a strong role in his nascent federal party the NXT, which currently has three senators and one lower house federal MP, in the SA seat of Mayo.

It is expected that Mr Xenophon would be replaced as a senator by a nominee from the grouping, however, that will turn on the outcome of the High Court case beginning next week.

He said the SA-wide blackout in September 2016 had been a catalyst for him, confirming that the state was being poorly served by the current Labor government under Premier Jay Weatherill.

"The fact is, Labor has been taking us down the wrong path, and the Liberals want to take us down a dead end," he said.

He said the aim was to have his state grouping, called SA Best work with NXT federally to exercise a balance of balance of power in the state and the Senate at the national level.

He ruled out any future ministerial role in SA, saying that option never serves voters well and inevitably compromises true independents.

The entry of the high-profile independent has thrown the March election into new uncertainty, because of his strong standing among central state voters.

The ABC's election analyst, Antony Green, said the switch was an important new development.

"Nick Xenophon's Team is the most significant third party in Australian politics," he said.

"In one state - in SA at the last federal election - he got more than 20 per cent of the vote in both houses.

"It [NXT] won a lower house seat and finished second in three lower house seats. Four out of the 11 seats in SA, it finished first or second."

If Senator Xenophon's validity as a senator is upheld by the High Court, his resignation would follow, allowing NXT to fill his casual vacancy.

However if the court rules he had not been validly elected in 2016, due to dual citizenship, that vacancy would be filled by a countback of the SA election returns for the Senate.

Opponents from left and right immediately attacked the move, with Christopher Pyne calling it a case of him putting his "massive oversized ego in front of the people of South Australia's interests".

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The story Nick Xenophon to quit Senate and run for state seat of Hartley first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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