(Image: Private Media/Gorkie)

In an effort to stir up some interest in its annual power lists, The Australian Financial Review has elevated four premiers to the top of its list and relegated Scott Morrison to second spot, in recognition of the centrifugal forces that have distributed power to the state capitals in the pandemic, and the prime minister’s inability to lead effectively.

At least it gave Fin writers something to actually write about, as well as recognising that systems of power can shift under external forces, something yet another by-the-numbers power list wouldn’t have done.

The list is an exercise in projecting, and protecting, power. Part of power is people believing you have power, and being anointed as powerful by a national newspaper confirms one’s status as “powerful”. It also shows what kind of people are powerful: mostly middle-aged white men in suits, with a smattering of women, mostly in politics or public service, with only Brittany Higgins included as a nod to any kind of different power to the most literal possible conception of it.

This is the establishment’s idea of power — understandably, because it’s the product of the establishment. The selection panel — Julie Bishop, Pru Goward, Michael Stutchbury, David Gazard, Tony Mitchelmore, Kathleen Conlon, Sarah Harding, Paul Howes and John Scales — is an array of establishment figures from politics, media, marketing and business (and yes, after years at KPMG, Howes is part of the establishment). It’s tilted towards the right, but that’s not especially the point.

The image of the establishment talking about the establishment is confirmed by Gazard being anointed as one of the top 10 most covertly powerful people — something that would come as a surprise to Naval Group, which was relying on his friendship with Morrison to keep it in the good books of the Australian government — or, at least, to tell it what was going on with the subs contract.

Admittedly Gazard is one of the few who belongs on that “covert” list, which is headed by some of the least covert people in the country — Morrison’s home handyman Phil Gaetjens, ATAGI, the head of the Doherty Institute, the ubiquitous Peter V’Landys. The only thing “covert” about Gaetjens is when he has to face a difficult Senate inquiry.

The lists in fact act as a shield for real power in Australia. There are only two business figures on the lists, and neither represents the most powerful corporations in the country, Santos, Origin and Woodside, which are able to shape government energy and climate policies. There’s one bank represented, via the Commonwealth’s Matt Comyn, despite the capacity of the big banks to resist the banking royal commission’s push for better regulation.

None of the big four audit/consulting firms are present despite their status as both major political contributors and as key sources of policy advice to the government. There’s no Clive Palmer, despite his long track record of using his wealth to achieve the political goals he wants.

In a political system like Australia’s that is characterised by soft corruption, it is those who can best exploit it to achieve their desired results who are the most powerful. But identifying the individuals who hold office at a particular moment, or who have the capacity to exploit those in office, is a distraction from the structures and systems that deliver that capacity.

There will always be vested interests and politicians who can be influenced by them; the names and suits will change over time, but it is the system that delivers the power. A by-the-numbers list of the politically prominent is “Great Man” history writ small, and confuses personalities for the way power really works.

Crikey is keen to know who you think is powerful and this country and why. It’s tempting to nominate who you think should be powerful. But that’s for another day.

So, who do you think has the power to influence their own interests and affect change in Australia — and how do they do it? Vote here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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