Political power in Canberra has changed in Australia in recent decades. It has become harder than ever to effectively use.
True, the financial and legal power of the federal government has grown steadily at the expense of the states through years of centralisation. But there have been other forces at work. Privatisation has removed major areas of economic activity from political control. Governments are under constant pressure to adhere to the broad economic “Washington consensus” of budget discipline, deregulation, privatisation and low taxes. An independent Reserve Bank controls monetary policy. A floating currency and a liberal foreign investment further minimise the role of government.
And power is more contested than ever before. The tools of influence — lobbyists, economic modellers, market researchers and pollsters — are now widely available. In the last five years, two major anti-government advertising campaigns have seriously damaged governments.
Canberra may have greater power, but effectively using it is harder than ever.
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And as The Power Index’s list of the most powerful people in Canberra will show, the people wielding power have changed. The professionalisation of politicians, the development of a professional class to whom governing has, in effect, been outsourced by voters, has altered the make-up of parliamentarians from the traditional post-war model of politics as a second career.
The result is the most inexperienced generation of political leaders since WW2. John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam all had extensive parliamentary experience and extended stints as leaders, ministers or in public life before becoming prime minister.
In comparison, Julia Gillard, like Kevin Rudd, has only been in parliament since 1998; Tony Abbott, the most experienced of the current generation, since 1994; Joe Hockey since 1996; neither Hockey nor Abbott held senior portfolios under the Howard government. But what they all have is extensive experience as political staffers: Gillard to John Brumby during his period as Victorian opposition leader; Rudd traded in his diplomatic career to work for Queensland premier Wayne Goss; Abbott was a journalist and then media adviser to John Hewson; Hockey worked for NSW premier John Fahey.
At the same time, political parties have not merely ceased being mass-membership entities, they have become disconnected from policy debates and increasingly controlled by the party hierarchy. As a consequence, the skills acquired by parliamentarians now revolve around internal party tactics and the delivery of factional patronage rather than ideological conflict, meaning the traditional skills of effective debate and policy disputation have been lost.
Labor has travelled further down this road than the Liberals, and it shows in its struggle to effectively communicate with the electorate. It is no coincidence that two of its most effective ministers, Greg Combet and Bill Shorten, come from senior positions in the union movement, where policy debate and dispute are still important, rather than via the more usual route of ministerial advisers.
Political power comes in different forms, too. For most politicians, their power is confined to the hard power of regulation and spending, limited by government process, heavily contested, highly accountable. But for leaders, and a limited number of the most influential senior politicians, they have access to soft power as well: the capacity to influence debate, to set the public policy agenda, to attract voters with their vision of Australia and to inspire and reshape the country beyond the direct capacity of law and spending.
The most effective Australian leaders of the last generation — Hawke, Keating and Howard — all combined both forms of power, giving the electorate a clear narrative about where they saw Australia’s future, what they wanted to do to achieve it and their agenda for doing so. And soft power was also deployed effectively against political opponents, particularly by Howard to paint Labor as weak on border protection.
Gillard has proven adept at wielding hard power, with a remarkable record of legislative success for a minority government and a solid record of reform — a carbon pricing package, the MRRT, the Future of Financial Advice package, winding back middle-class welfare. But Gillard has struggled to master soft power, to exploit the bully pulpit of the prime ministership to shape public debate and electoral perceptions of her and complement and strengthen her reforms.
This failure to master soft power is the key reason why Labor currently faces an intensely hostile electorate.