Power, real power, is about having the ability to refit societal frameworks to meet your needs; fixing court cases, reframing laws, commandeering public assets and bending the public mind to your will.

We see it across Africa, through the Middle East, in the non-tiger economies of Asia. It flourishes in Russia and China and positively blooms in North Korea.

But in truth we don’t see much of it here.

The rather dreary truth is that we have a robust democracy — an independent judiciary, governments that can be rotated without blood, an army that follows instruction, a fundamentally honest and enquiring media and systems of distribution where corruption is irritatingly rare. Our society works pretty well despite the best efforts of petty propagandists like me.

Within the context of a stout society of course power is exercised, and this takes many forms, but most of them are ultimately expressions of a larger public will.

The pollsters who advise politicians are not actually powerful; they are the prism through which decision-makers can find out what Peter and Peggy from Penrith fret about, thus allowing populist policies to be reflected back.

The factional leaders who claim to enthrone prime ministers are, in fact, cogs in a complex machine driven by municipal opinion, shaped by enthusiasts and limited by publicly acceptable solutions.

The aspirations of union bosses are tempered by the needs of their constituents, broader community attitudes and fiscal imperatives.

The Bolts and Jones and Mitchells of the media have clout, but are similarly captured by the need to resonate with the public they inform.

The spin doctors, the GetUp!s, the vested interest groups and dodgy lobbyists can only tell their favoured version of the truth; lies rarely succeed with major issues. The corporations can only press their case to a limited degree.

And for every poll-driven politician, shock jock, factional overlord, union heavy, liar for hire, activist or corporate opportunist there is a corresponding public antidote.

In short, we have successfully built a system of checks and balances that makes industrial-scale abuse of power an exceptional thing. The machinery works.

Power in Australia is actually better characterised as undue influence and there are two keys to this — patience and cash.

Patience is important, because setting up a situation in which your view is supported eats time, as you need to help put sympathetic decision makers into positions of influence, and this takes years.

Activists may have the patience, but not the cash. Governments have the cash, but not the patience. The only group with that much money and patience is large corporates, and the bigger they are, the more potent.

I believe that the most powerful influence on policy outside government comes from our largest corporates. But their 10-year plans are designed to build an environment in which their operations can thrive, rather than subvert the public will. And invariably they have an eye to societal benefit too; most people running companies are pretty decent humans.

So what do I think? I think power here is limited, abuse of it is rare, and our society has a boring equilibrium to keep it largely thus.

*Toby Ralph is a freelance strategist and public relations specialist who has worked for a range of clients including tobacco companies, the nuclear waste industry, banks and the National Farmers’ Federation. He’s The Power Index #8 most powerful spinner and adviser — and told them he’ll “work for anyone who pays me”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey