Last year we set out to discover who really runs Australia. And now we’re ready to answer the question.

But don’t expect it to be simple.

Certainly, there is no one-word solution. It’s not money or the Masons; not the Catholics or the unions; not the Jews or multinationals; not even those factional bosses in the Labor Party. Nor is it some secret, shadowy elite, unless we failed to find them.

The truth is that power in Australia is remarkably pluralist. Different groups have power in different areas, and lots of people affect decisions. What’s more, the locus of power is constantly changing, and it depends on how people play their cards.

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Kevin Rudd became prime minister in 2007 with almost unparalleled public support and a huge parliamentary majority. Yet he threw it all away because he alienated and ignored his colleagues, and disappointed his supporters.

Power — particularly in politics — depends on bringing people along with you, as Rudd now knows. Even dictators fall eventually, but in a democratic society, power can vanish a great deal faster, especially if you depend on Labor’s factional bosses.

In Australia, no one just says the word and makes things happen, or not on a grand scale. This is not North Korea, Russia or Mexico.

We live in a country where rulers govern by consent, and where the media can expose crime and corruption without fear of being jailed, murdered or silenced by the courts. Even prime ministers, or especially prime ministers, need the public’s permission sooner or later, to effect change or to stay in office.

So what exactly is power?

Power is not about being rich or a role model; it’s not about being admired or a success. And it’s certainly not about being virtuous. One could be all these things, yet have no power at all.

Power is also not about who is on the A-List, or who can get the best tables in the best restaurants. Nor is it about fame and celebrity. And it is not about being able to get your phone calls answered by the premier or prime minister, although that would be a good start.

Power is about being able to protect or advance your own interests, whether you’re an individual or a group. It’s the power to run your own affairs and hand out patronage, but also to swing decisions in your favour, to make yourself richer, more powerful or more privileged.

However, The Power Index prefers to focus on a broader measure, which gauges the power to affect other people’s lives, the power to change Australia or prevent it from changing, and the power to govern the way we all live.

That’s why we ask, when we draw up our lists, “what can this person or group actually do that makes a difference? What have they done in the past year? What did they make happen, or what did they stop?

Admittedly, it’s a more political definition of power than many would adopt. But it’s the one we think is most important and revealing.

So where does power come from? And how do you get it?

Sometimes, it is money that brings power; sometimes it’s position or office; sometimes it’s contacts and networks. But almost always, the powerful use personality, perseverance, energy and charm to make the most of their potential.

As former prime minister Malcolm Fraser told The Power Index, you can be leader of the nation and be “totally ineffective if that’s the sort of person you are”.

*This is part one of Paul Barry’s essay on how power works in Australia. To comment and for more visit The Power Index.