As The Power Index counts down Australia’s 50 most powerful people, Paul Barry continues his look at who really runs Australia by examining how titles, wealth and media clout create influence …

Some positions do carry power. The governor of the Reserve Bank, the head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the head of the Australian Securities & Investment Commission and the Commissioner of NSW Police get closer than most to absolute rule, but their domains are limited. The same is true of arts bureaucrats, sporting administrators and the CEOs of big companies, all of whom may take decisions that affect other people’s lives to varying degrees.

Public servants in Canberra have power over a much wider domain, in that they write laws and regulations that may affect us all. And the prime minister has considerable power over an even wider area. But in practice, it’s limited in all sorts of ways. By people such as the big mining companies, for example, and anyone who has money, muscle or the media behind them.

You can run huge advertising campaigns to sway public opinion. You can threaten to close factories and offices if you don’t get your way. You can hire lobbyists to schmooze decision makers and flatter politicians. You can get PR firms and spin doctors to massage the media. You can bribe officials, politicians and journalists, if you dare. And you can dazzle decision makers with the aura of success

You can also buy into the media, as Gina Rinehart has done at Network Ten and Fairfax Media, and fellow billionaire Clive Palmer occasionally threatens to do.

With muscle, your threats carry weight. But having a mob at your elbow may also give you direct control.

Trade unions, for example, command 50% of the votes in the Australian Labor Party (more if they organise at branch level), so they can take key positions, select MPs they favour and set party policy in opposition. The unions can also land plum ministerial jobs and shape the Labor cabinet, via the factional bosses, whose power often rests on union votes.

The unions also fund the ALP, and can throw millions of dollars into ad campaigns, as they did in 2007 to attack Howard’s Work Choices. And of course, they can bring members out on strike.

Other mass movements, such as GetUp!, have muscle and money, and can organise flash mobs and petitions, and influence votes. But they don’t control a political party like the unions can do, and they’re not yet in the same power league.

The media swings votes and can mobilise public opinion, or so politicians believe. And radio shock-jocks such as Alan Jones and Ray Hadley are happy to behave as if it’s true, even though they probably never change their listeners’ minds. The Power Index reckons the media has great power, because it sets the agenda and the tone of debate, and because politicians are so ready to take notice. It sets the bounds of what is possible.

The loudest megaphone in Australia is probably carried by Andrew Bolt, whose blogs, columns and TV show reach a weekly audience of millions. But the media mogul with most clout is undoubtedly Rupert Murdoch, who has long used his newspapers to advance his own interests and to make or break governments. According to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, The Australian and Daily Telegraph have waged a “jihad” against the Gillard government. It’s one reason she is the most unpopular prime minister in history.

And then there is the contacts book.

Fifty years ago, a famous book called Anatomy of Britain showed how the Tory party was run by a handful of men who had been to Eton, Oxford and Cambridge, and that Britain was in the grip of a small class-based elite. The same could be said of Australian company directors, especially in Melbourne. “They went to the same schools, they went to the same universities, they married each other’s sisters. And they go on holiday together in Portsea,” Macquarie Bank chairman Kevin McCann told a women’s lunch in February. 

But let’s not forget the role luck plays in power. How else could a former middle-ranking intelligence officer such as Andrew Wilkie, who came third in the Tasmanian seat of Denison with 13,788 votes — or roughly 20% of those cast — get to hold the fate of Australia’s government in his hands? How else could he have squeezed $340 million out of Gillard to rebuild Hobart General Hospital, and how else could he have pushed the government so close to enacting reforms to combat problem gambling? Wilkie’s luck was to be in the right place at the right time, and find that Labor depended for its survival on his support. It no longer does, so his power has drained away.

But Wilkie made the most of his luck while it lasted, by playing his hand well. And The Power Index believes that’s a common trait in the powerful. The ones who make our lists have something special. It might be charm. It might be menace. It might be the ability to network and persuade, or to manipulate. Or it might be a combination of all of these. But they know how to use the opportunity they are given. They also have passion and perseverance. They work at it. They enjoy it. They really want it.

As it is in sport and business, so it is in power. You don’t get to the top without working for it. And you don’t get there entirely by accident.

Unless you happen to be a floating voter who lives in a marginal seat that could decide the next election, and you happen to be picked for a focus group monitored by NSW Labor’s Mark Arbib and Ken Bitar. That way you can end up running the country, or you could have done, while Labor still had a chance of winning.

*Read part one of Paul Barry’s essay and comment at The Power Index.