The 2013 election has established a new political power structure in Australia, and not just with the arrival of the Coalition in power.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott heads Crikey’s annual Power 50 list, which goes live online today. The list chronicles the 50 most powerful people in Australian politics, business, media, sport, arts and culture, as judged by our panel of Crikey experts. It provides a neat summary of who’s who and indicates who we think likely to rise further up the list in 12 months’ time.

Abbott, Crikey’s number one pick, has the authority of a Liberal leader who has destroyed two Labor leaders and returned his party to power just six years after the Howard government lost office. But a key threat to his agenda is a man who has disrupted Australian politics in the space of a few months: Clive Palmer, with a mixture of canny politics learnt from the Joh-era National Party, the vagaries of Senate preferential voting and personal wealth, has seized the balance of power in the Senate and will be capable of blocking Coalition legislation if it’s opposed by the opposition and Greens as well.

At number three on the list is Treasurer Joe Hockey, who has taken charge of the Australian economy at a key inflection point, with the transition from the record mining investment boom under Labor to more traditional domestic-driven growth still not assured, and the Australian dollar showing the same disturbing buoyancy that plagued Australia under Labor. Hockey has abandoned much of the Coalition’s fiscal rhetoric from opposition as he focuses on dealing with the same problems that challenged former treasurer Wayne Swan, but he will also oversee two crucial inquiries — the Commission of Audit, expected to commence later this year, and the long-awaited Son of Wallis financial services inquiry.

Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin (at number four), also plays a crucial role in the fortunes of the new government. Labor never produced an operator of the quality of Arthur Sinodinos, who was an important part of John Howard’s success as his chief-of-staff, but Credlin has substantial government experience from the Howard years. The only question is whether she can relax the iron grip needed in opposition enough to avoid the kind of mistakes former prime minister Kevin Rudd made.

Bill Shorten (our number five) has the unenviable task of first-term Opposition Leader, with no experience in opposition and little parliamentary experience; regardless of political performance, however, a key question will be whether Labor makes the key mistake of the Beazley and Crean years and turns its back on its own legacy from government.

As premier of a huge chunk of the Australian economy, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell is important not just politically but economically. He has got NSW moving again after the stagnation of the last years of Labor, and his methodical approach to reform, in contrast to that of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman (who rates lower on Crikey’s list), has proved more politically effective, but still faces key challenges around infrastructure and — like his counterparts elsewhere, especially WA Premier Colin Barnett — revenue.

The Commonwealth’s most senior bureaucrat, Ian Watt, is also on the list; the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet appears for now to have avoided the fate of his predecessors and looks set to remain in his position, dealing with the demands of a new government that wants a lot done and fewer public servants to do it.

This is, however, very much a transitional list, because as governments settle in, relationships begin realigning and power often flows along unexpected paths. The rise of Clive Palmer as a political force began with his alienation from the Newman government — a government whose election Palmer had helped bankroll. On September 7, the tremors from that falling-out reached Canberra, and the impacts will be felt for years to come.

Click here to view the full 2013 Power 50

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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