Limits to power

THE CATHOLIC CATECHISM of old commenced with the question "Who made the world?" The answer was unambiguous: "God made the world."

If the Australian Financial Review Magazine's annual "Power" survey took the pedagogical form of a catechism it would begin with the following question: "Who controls Australia?" And the answer: "John Howard controls Australia". Journalist Andrew Clark said as much when he started his article on "politics" in the October 2003 "Issues of Power" survey: "Prime Minister John Howard commands all he surveys ... This is the consensus of The AFR Magazine's Power Panel's review of the political scene seven-and-a-half years into John Howard's prime ministership."

In 2003, the Power Panel consisted of Rod Cameron, Allan Fels, Bob Hogg, Neer Korn, Sandra Levy, Robert Manne, Max Moore-Wilton, Grahame Morris, Helen Nugent, Heather Ridout, Philippa Smith, Mike Tilley and Catherine Walter. Each was described by AFR Magazine editor Brook Turner as a "prominent" Australian who is "a connoisseur of the exercise of power". Together they drew up a "Power List" that "gives an unparalled picture of who is wielding power in 2003, and how". Top of the (Power) Pops in 2003 were – in order – John Howard, Rupert Murdoch, Peter Costello, Ian Macfarlane, Bob Carr, Alan Jones, Kerry Packer, Peter Cosgrove, Simon Crean and Alexander Downer. All were said to exercise "overt power". But do they really?

Take the Prime Minister, for example. In private conversation he is more likely to focus on the restraints of office rather than discuss options for the exercise of overt power. John Howard is one of the most successful and significant leaders in Australian political history. Yet the Liberal Party/National Party Coalition does not have a majority in the Senate. The Coalition's policy platform has been constrained across a range of issues, including the full privatisation of Telstra, border protection, media laws, health in general and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in particular, eligibility for disability pensions, higher education reform – along with a host of industrial relations matters from strengthening the bans on secondary boycotts to winding back the unfair dismissal laws.

Clark and the AFR Power Panel may well believe that "John Howard commands all he surveys". However, it is most unlikely that any such self-assessment would be heard in Sydney's Kirribilli House or at the Lodge in Canberra. The same can be said for all the other members of the "overt power" list. Treasurer Peter Costello and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer share John Howard's policy frustrations. Media proprietors Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer have not been able to achieve their wishes with respect to Australia's media laws. Premier Bob Carr's government does not have a majority in the New South Wales Legislative Council. General Cosgrove, properly, implements the policy of Australia's democratically elected leaders. Alan Jones can be heard on the electronic media berating governments – federal and state alike – for not doing what he believes they should be doing. When opposition leader, Simon Crean's policy importance turned on deciding whether or not to support the Coalition's legislation in the Senate. This leaves Ian Macfarlane. Certainly there are few limits on the Reserve Bank governor's autonomy to set interest rates. Yet control over monetary policy is but part of overall economic policy.

Then there are the AFR panel's views about "covert power" and "cultural power". Winners in the former category include businessman Frank Lowy and journalist Maxine McKew. In the latter category are ABC chairman Donald McDonald and businessman Richard Pratt. In October 2003, Lowy let it be known that he did not believe that Dr Hanan Ashrawi should have been awarded the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize. She was, and it was handed to her by Bob Carr. Pratt, so far at least, has not been able to persuade the Howard Government to implement his policy agenda on water and immigration. McDonald has failed to win additional funding for the ABC, despite his personal friendship with the Prime Minister. And McKew's potential for what Rod Cameron described as causing "turmoil" turns on her ability to take influential Australians to lunch (on the record) with her.


THE PROBLEM WITH the power list is that the concept of power is incompatible with democracy. Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler were unelected dictators who ruled by power. Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were elected leaders who governed with authority. John Howard does not "command all he surveys" in Australia. Rather, he exercises the authority of the prime ministerial office. This makes Howard the most influential Australian, in a policy sense. But it also means that, on occasions, he has to make concessions and to enter into coalitions in order to achieve outcomes. Moreover, the Prime Minister does not control the state governments – although he can influence the amount of Commonwealth payments to the states. It is the premiers and chief ministers – currently all Labor – who administer education, hospitals and policing. And, of course, Howard does not control the High Court or the Federal Court – even though he makes appointments to both bodies.

It is much the same with the Power Panel's findings about covert and cultural power. Both are misnomers. What is being examined here is really influence, not power. To different degrees and in different areas, the likes of Frank Lowy, Richard Pratt, Donald McDonald and Maxine McKew – and more besides – exercise influence. Because they cannot implement their agendas, they do not wield power.

Modern democratic politics is all about authority, influence, compromise and coalitions. It is not at all about power. Invariably it has been ideological thinkers who have argued to the contrary – initially leftists, more recently conservatives.


THE POWER ELITE (Oxford Press), writen by the American Leftists radical  C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), was published in 1959. Mills identified the composition of what he termed a "power elite": "They are in command of the major hierarchies and organisations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure in which are now centred the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy ... By the power elite, we refer to those political, economic and military circles which as an intricate set of overlapping cliques share decisions having at least national consequences. In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them."

The power-elite theory soon became popular in Australia with both social democrats and Marxists and two years later resulted in the publication of Sol Encel's pamphlet Is There an Australian Power Elite? (Chifley Memorial Lecture, 1961). The question in the title was answered in the second paragraph. The social-democratic pamphleteer declared: "Of course there is a power elite in Australia ... in any organised society there is bound to be a power elite, in the sense of a more or less stable body of people who effectively exercise authority, influence and power."

Yet the attempt to transplant Wright Mills's thesis to Australia was not without its problems. In his essay "The Ideology Makers" (Dissent, Winter 1964), Hugo Wolfsohn argued: "... We must emancipate ourselves from the power-elite syndrome. Otherwise we get into Encel's difficulties when he asserts the existence of a power elite emphatically on page 3 of his Chifley Memorial Lecture, denies its existence on page 21 and discovers its gradual emergence on page 23."

The summer 1965 issue of Arena magazine published "A Symposium on Power in Australia" featuring Encel and Wolfsohn. Halfway through his paper, Encel commented: "It has taken me a long time to get around to the question whether there is a power elite in Australia. Let me make my position quite clear by saying that, in my opinion, the answer is no."

Encel acknowledged that Wolfsohn had "introduced the very useful notion of a continuum of influence". In his essay, Wolfsohn looked at Australian society in the early 1960s and saw not one identifiable power elite but rather "a plethora of elites among whom business executives, highly placed public servants and politicians exist side by side without showing signs of ideological or social coalescence". He accepted the existence of "an Australian establishment", the members of which "enjoy, or at least believe they enjoy, a particular type of influence". But not untrammelled power.

As Encel acknowledged in his Arena article, the left in Australia had long argued that the rich ran the nation. This was the theme in such pamphlets as Frank Anstey's Money Power (1921) and J.T. Lang's Why I Fight(1934). Anstey was a socialist activist who became a federal MP before quitting the ALP. Lang was a socialist, of anti-communist disposition, who also split with Labor. Both men, on occasions, exhibited certain anti-semitism. There were also such socialist tracts as Brian Fitzpatrick's Monopoly Business: Financial Facts(1941) and E.L. Wheelwright's Ownership and Control of Australian Companies (1957). The Communist Party ran a similar line: initially, J.N. Rawling's Who Owns Australia? (1937) and E.W. Campbell's pamphlet The 60 Families Which Own Australia published in 1963 in the wake of the power-elite debate sparked by Mills. Both Rawlings and Campbell presented a Marxist analysis where the base determined the superstructure. Rawlings was one of the few communists who quit the party in 1939 in protest at the Hitler-Stalin pact.

Campbell advocated the implementation of the Communist Party of Australia's program in order "to take away from the 60 rich families the great power they wield over the life of the nation and its people". In a sense, the author was afflicted by the psychological phenomenon of projection. He was projecting onto Australia the situation that actively existed in his ideal society, the totalitarian Soviet Union – where a small elite exercised real power without qualification. In Australia in the 1960s, on the other hand, elites competed to exercise influence – and no one person or family or institution exercised absolute power.


IT'S MUCH THE same today. Now, however, it is conservatives – not social democrats and Marxists – who use the word "elite" or "elites" as a term of abuse. The trend started in 1995 with the publication of Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy (Norton). Much of the material in his book had been previously published. However, the first three chapters were fresh – including the second titled "The Revolt of the Elites". Lasch (1932-1994), an American philosopher, died shortly before the publication of what became his most noticed work.

In his introduction, Lasch moved quickly into a discussion of elites and culture wars – terms that have become much used in Australia since the election of the Howard Government in March 1996: "The culture wars that have convulsed America since the '60s are best understood as a form of class warfare, in which an enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself) seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, sexist, provincial and xenophobic), much less to persuade the majority by means of rational public debate, as to create parallel or "alternative" institutions in which it will no longer be necessary to confront the unenlightened at all."

In "The Revolt of the Elites", Lasch argued that the "chief threat" to "Western culture" in our time "seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses". He defined elites as "those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over the philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate..." He depicted a growing tension between those whom he identified as the elites and the masses: "Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension. In the United States, "Middle America" – a term that has both geographical and social implications – has come to symbolise everything that stands in the way of progress: family values, mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women. Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing – not because they wish to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defence of it appears so deeply irrational that it expresses itself, at the higher reaches of its intensity, in fanatical religiosity, in a repressive sexuality that occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays, and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity."

Lasch did not live long enough to witness the impact of what the Americans call 9/11 on the US. Even if his assessment of the new elites/masses dichotomy was correct in the mid-1990s, it does not seem to have survived the terrorist attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, intact. In fact, many members of what Lasch described as the "professional classes" supported George W. Bush's war against terrorism in Afghanistan and the Bush Administration's key role in the decision taken by the Coalition of the Willing (US, Britain, Australia, Poland) to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime.


YET THE CHANGE in the American psyche after 9/11 did not stop the importation into Australia of the pre-9/11 thought of Lasch – in the form of David Flint's The Twilight of the Elites (Freedom Publishing, 2003). According to the author: "The term 'elite' is ... a useful, although mildly pejorative, reference to the way of thinking now common in the media, in some university faculties and in the arts. It is to be contrasted with a traditional thought, whose advocates are clearly in a minority in those circles, but who represent and enunciate the commonsense, pragmatic views of the vast majority of Australians."

Whereas Lasch defined elites with respect to professions, Flint links the term to attitudes. He does not say precisely what the elites stand for – but is emphatic that they are opposed to the "pragmatic views of the vast majority of Australians". There is also a left-right divide. According to Flint, "elite opinion is the opinion typical of the upper-middle-class liberal – that is, liberal in the American sense." In short, elite opinion "tends to be left-wing on social and cultural issues". Consequently, a person can be with the "vast majority" and against the elites – irrespective of wealth, education, position or other forms of status.

Take Professor David Flint AM, for example. According to his entry in the Who's Who in Australia 2003, he was educated in Sydney, London and Paris, has degrees in economics and law and became a tenured law professor. Flint is a member of Sydney's exclusive Union Club and in 1997 was appointed by the Howard Government to the full-time job of chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority – one of the most influential positions in Australian public life. He is known to be on friendly terms with the Prime Minister and to attend the occasional social functions at Kirribilli House.

To some, Flint's education, honours, position and social status would typecast him as a member of the elite or, more accurately, an elite. But if elitism is in the eye of the beholder, then your man Flint is not a member of this particular entity. Rather the elites are those with whom he is in political disagreement – irrespective of their education, wealth or social standing.

In other words, Flint maintains that a poorly paid leftist librarian is one of the "elites" – whereas a multi-millionaire who supports John Howard's social agenda is not. This situation follows the self-serving definition that elite opinion equals left-wing opinion. So, what is left these days? David Flint maintains that individuals who are "left-wing on social and cultural issues" embrace the following agenda. They (i) support a republic, (ii) favour reconciliation, (iii) oppose Australia's involvement with the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, (iv) are weak on border protection, (v) advocate a significant increase in Australia's population, (vi) tolerate abortion and (vii) do not oppose divorce.

A quick examination of Peter Costello's position demolishes Flint's case. The deputy Liberal leader and Treasurer (i) favours an Australian head of state, (ii) backs the reconciliation process and (iii) is pro-immigration. But he is very much a conservative on most other issues. Costello also supports border protection and strongly backs Australia's military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, in Flint's all-or-nothing approach, Costello emerges as a member of the leftist elites on account of the fact that he fits within the categories of Flint's elites model. Bizarre indeed.

There are some 70 references to "elite" or "elites" in the first chapter of The Twilight of the Elites. However, only a few names are named. Former prime minister Paul Keating is there, plus Labor frontbencher Wayne Swan – along with journalists Maxine McKew and Anne Summers and authors Tom Keneally and Don Watson. Even businessman Phuong Ngo gets a mention – in spite of the fact that he is serving a life sentence for murder within the NSW prison system. It is difficult to envisage anything less elitist than serving time in maximum security. Later on, Flint names a few more "elitist" names: journalists and ex-journalists Phillip Adams, Stuart Littlemore, David Salter, Mike Carlton, Jennifer Hewitt, Mike Seccombe; authors Robert Hughes, Phillip Knightley, Germaine Greer, Donald Horne; academics Helen Irving, Mary Kalantzis, Alan Gilbert, Mark McKenna, Henry Reynolds; and political activists Greg Barns, Chris Sidoti, Bob Brown, Natasha Stott-Despoja, Peter Costello, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Robb.


WHAT UNITES VIRTUALLY all of David Flint's "elites" is that – during John Howard's political ascendancy – they are not even close to people in authority. The exceptions are Peter Costello and, to a lesser extent, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Robb and Alan Gilbert (in his manifestation as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne). That's it. In other words, according to Flint, the overwhelming majority of those who comprise the elites in Australia are distant from government and, consequently, have little influence in so far as policy outcomes are concerned.

This is the kind of problem that invariably arises when commentators think in – and proclaim – slogans. Flint identifies the problem when, in The Twilight of the Elites, he criticises the left for engaging in their "favourite weapons" of "ridicule, labelling and branding". Yet this is precisely what Flint is on about with his use of the label "elites" to brand his political opponents.

Flint's attack on the elites – confused as it is – helps to demonstrate the fact that Howard does not command all he surveys. Take the so-called culture wars, for example. The Howard Government appointed the ABC chairman (Donald McDonald) and all the members of the current ABC board (except for the staff-elected director). The ABC board, in turn, has appointed the managing director – initially Jonathan Shier and, subsequently, Russell Balding.

Following its election, it soon became clear that the Howard Government wanted two essential changes at the ABC. The Prime Minister called, perhaps unwisely, for the appointment of a "right-wing Phillip Adams". By this he meant that the ABC would benefit from at least one conservative, or centre-right, presenter to balance the plethora of leftist presenters on ABC television and radio – for example, Phillip Adams, Terry Lane, Michael Cathcart, George Negus et al. It seems that Howard also believed that the ABC TV 7.30 Reportwould benefit if its long-time presenter Kerry O'Brien moved on. For his part, then communications minister Richard Alston wanted a total revamp of the ABC complaints procedure. Neither Howard nor Alston got his way. What's more, on the available evidence, Adams and O'Brien seem more entrenched than ever in their seemingly tenured positions. Which suggests that whatever the relationship between the Prime Minister and the ABC is, it is not one of powerful versus powerless.

Flint – despite his taxpayer-funded high salary, education and contacts with government – rails against the "elites". Some commentators run a similar line while using somewhat different labels. Where Flint sees elites, others identify the "New Class" (Andrew Bolt, Michael Duffy, John Stone) "Clever People" (Michael Barnard), "Cultural Gatekeepers" (Ross Terrill), "Commentariat" (Christopher Pearson), even the "Middle Class" (David Penberthy) and "They" (Les Carlyon). In all cases, the label throwers come from similar social circumstances as their leftist targets – all are well educated, of at least comfortable means and able to have their views reported in the media.

The concept of "the elites" is flawed if, by this, Flint and friends believe that there is one leftist elite that controls the political and cultural debate in Australia. In fact, there are many members of many competing elites. In this sense, Flint is a member of a cultural/political elite – and Phillip Adams is a member of another like entity. It's much the same with how others see power. According to Andrew Clark, John Howard is all-powerful. It's just that this is not how the Prime Minister and his supporters see it. Those who make it to inside the cabinet room are well aware of the limitations on power within a system of representative government. Saddam Hussein once possessed real power; Howard (and Keating before him) exercises authority – to a greater or lesser extent.

The problem with the analysis provided by many commentators is that they have little idea about how government – as distinct from politics – really works. On March 23, 2002, Andrew Clark wrote an article inThe Australian Financial Review where he alleged that, in 1995, John Howard had hosted "secret meetings with close associates in the party, business and various institutes" during which "a list" of political enemies was drawn up – with a view to bringing about "the removal of targeted people in the public service, academia, ABC and the High Court". The Prime Minister replied (AFR, April 2, 2002) that there were "never any 'secret meetings' in 1995, or at any other time, nor were any lists drawn up". Howard complained that these "serious conspiratorial allegations" were not checked with him or his office. This was not just a case of poor journalism on Clark's part.

More seriously, it exhibited a distorted view of how government operates within democratic societies. Elected leaders do not have the power to dismiss people at will in such independent organisations as the ABC or universities.

Wolfsohn was correct four decades ago when he argued that "the concept of 'power' causes endless difficulties and confusion" and that "its concreteness has evaporated as social analysis has become more sophisticated". In 1964, Wolfsohn felt it necessary to remind advocates of the "power elite" theory that "Australian society shows a high degree of cultural, social and political fragmentation determined by sheer size of territory, the federal system, denominational divisions and the nature of the education system". The pluralism that Wolfsohn noted in 1964 is even more evident today due to greater competition and developments in the media, among other factors.

In contemporary Australia, no one exercises undiluted power in the sense that Niccolo Machiavelli or Karl Marx thought of the term. And there is no one elite. In other words, nobody really runs Australia – but some Australians are more influential than others.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review