Listing the country’s most powerful intellectuals is fraught with danger. How do you separate one thinker from another in such a broad field? Does it go to the most widely published? The most recognisable? The one with the highest IQ?
And there’s an extra ingredient that needs to be considered: the most effective, and powerful, intellectuals aren’t just thinkers. They’re agenda setters as well.
While they don’t necessarily possess power themselves, their ideas can influence — or be championed by — the people that do.
That’s not to say we haven’t put any old culture warriors on the Thinkers Power List (we’ve definitely picked some of those). And we’ve certainly chosen people who’ve been published widely (or at least their ideas have).
So where is the battle of ideas being fought? Well, we’re talking climate change, indigenous rights, gender equality, health reform, key diplomatic ties, the role of government and the future of the media.
And despite often disagreeing with each other, most of our key thinkers have the same qualities: they’re so passionate about their field that they’re willing to use academic rigour, a forensic nature and a way with words to influence the national debate.
Oh, and all of them reckon their ideas are the most important …
If there was one thing most of the people interviewed for this list tended to agree on, it was that the truly influential thinkers have an activist streak as well. This may come as a shock to the traditional even-handed academics who pride themselves on objectivity and rationality, but it seems influence comes from more than just being able to provide the evidence: you’ve got to sell it as well.
So are there any other important skills? “Perseverance and persistence,” notes mental health advocate professor Pat McGorry, “And treating the whole thing as a struggle, because it is a massive fight to actually get things to change.”
And it’s no use having a powerful idea if you don’t have an articulate way of expressing it. “An intellectual is by definition public,” explains Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University. “[It is] a kind of scholar who has decided that they want to have an impact on political, social, cultural trajectory and their society or society more generally.”
Whether it’s through peer-reviewed articles, in-depth research, a book or even the odd newspaper column, it’s important for a powerful thinker to be able to tell the world about it.
“There are probably lots of people who are amazing intellectuals doing amazingly interesting things and we have no idea about them because they can’t or don’t want to communicate it,” says ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold.
This doesn’t mean we’ve chosen the most prominent media tarts (even if they did score a combined 79,878 media mentions between them), but we’ve stayed away from the tweed-clad scholars who don’t have much impact outside the cloistered world of the university.
“I always think the measure of effectiveness for someone trying to contribute to the debate is not so much how many people agree with them, but how many people respond to them,” says Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at ANU.
“Of course, if people agree with you that’s nice. But you can get people to agree with you if you’re saying something banal. And that doesn’t help much.”