Who Has Cultural Muscle in Australia?

Posted on: October 28th, 2019 in mindset by Pat Mesiti | No Comments

The newspaper, The Australian Financial Review, publishes a list every year of the most culturally powerful people in Australia. According to the paper, these are the people we take notice of and talk about. They have the power to define what it means to be Australian. These people help shape our views.

The list has been running for 19 years and this year it named tennis player Ashy Barty the most culturally powerful person in Australia.

“Sport has always loomed large in Australian culture,” said AFR Magazine Editor, Matthew Drummond. “But this year’s Cultural Power List contains an unusually large number of sports stars. That seems to reflect how more and more topics of the day get talked about in connection with the sports field. Two big examples from this year are men’s mental health and the battle over religious freedom in the wake of the Israel Folau sacking.” 

The 2019 AFR Magazine Cultural Power List was decided by a panel of decision-makers from Australia’s creative and media industries, including: 

  •  Russel Howcroft, Chief creative officer, PwC 
  • Lisa Havilah, Chief executive, Powerhouse Museum 
  •  Amanda Duthie, Acting CEO, South Australian Film Corporation 
  • Wesley Enoch, Artistic Director, Sydney Festival 
  • Gabriel Trainor, Chair, National Film and Sound Archive 

Here is a summary of who this panel deemed ‘culturally powerful’. I wonder if you see these people as having real influence on us.

Ash Barty

Ash is basically considered to be a ‘good sport’, gracious, fair and unassuming. She made it to number one on the women’s tennis circuit.

Adam Goodes

The AFL star and former Australian of the Year is featured in two recent documentaries, The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream, about Goodes’ tumultuous end in the AFL.

Tom Gleeson

The comedian made a mockery of the TV Week Logie Awards, through his campaign to snare the Gold Logie. 
Israel Folau

The rugby player was sacked by Rugby Australian over his controversial social media posts on homosexuality. The federal government has reacted by drafting a bill to protect religious freedom. 
Tony Ellwood

During his seven years as director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) he doubled attendance at the gallery and secured the support of the Victorian government, which last year announced it would build Australia’s largest contemporary art gallery behind the NGV. 
Ellyse Perry

The Australian cricket woman is at number six for her sportswomanship. 
Judith Nielsen

The philanthropist is seventh on the list, recognised for funding a $100 million institute for journalism based in Sydney, which has already handed out a number of grants to media outlets including the ABC, The Australian, Guardian Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review

Nicole Kidman

The actor and producer is eighth on the list. She starred in and produced the hit US TV series, Big Little Lies
Ben Quilty

The artist is ninth for his three-city career survey show and the controversy surrounding a Good Weekend profile in which he was photographed wearing a crown of thorns. 

Kate Mulvany

The actress was recognised for her screen and stage performances in Belvoir Street’s Every Brilliant Thing, Foxtel/Lingo Pictures’ Lambs of God, and the upcoming US Amazon series, The Hunt

Does it make sense to you?

I am not sure what I think of this list. You would think some of the more obvious choices for the list would be former magazine editor, Ita Buttrose, this year appointed chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or our Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who Trump described as a man of titanium. What about best-selling author Liane Moriarty or the Hemsworth brothers? What about charity worker Tim Costello or even Julian Assange, now imprisoned in England, or even Darwin singer Jessica Mauboy? It seems you have to be pretty young and new to make it to this list. It is also curious that no Australian social media influencer is included, not Celeste Barber or Lachlan Ross Power who have millions of online followers?

Who really shapes the culture of this country?

I think politicians have more influence over our culture than we realise – people like Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann. I am not overtly political, but I want to remind Australian politicians to show kindness because they do have cultural influence.

A week after The Australian Financial Review released its culturally powerful list, it then put out an ‘Overt Power List’, which ranks the 10 people who possess the power to dramatically lead and shape the country. I think it is impossible to separate power and cultural influence. Leaders set the cultural tone. Anyone who has worked with a bad manager knows this. Bad bosses create toxic workplace cultures! Power and culture are intertwined.

On top of the newspaper’s Overt Power List is Prime Minister Scott Morrison. AFR Magazine Editor Matthew Drummond said that Morrison's blindside election win gave him extraordinary influence over every Australian. Do you agree?

Here is the complete top ten

The Australian Financial Review Magazine’s Overt Power List:

  1. Scott Morrison (Prime Minister)
  2. Josh Frydenberg (Federal Treasurer)
  3. Gladys Berejiklian (NSW Premier)
  4. Philip Lowe (Reserve Bank of Australia Governor)
  5. Anthony Albanese (Opposition Leader)
  6. Peter Dutton (Home Affairs Minister)
  7. Mike Cannon-Brookes (Atlassian co-founder)
  8. Jacqui Lambie and cross bench (Independent politician)
  9. Rod Sims (ACCC Chair)
  10. Ita Buttrose (ABC (chair)

The Australian Financial Review also puts out another list called the ‘Covert Power List’.  This is the list of the 10 most powerful Australians, who work away from the public eye and pull the strings of business, politics and the public.

This list was topped by Philip Gaetjens, Scott Morrison’s former chief of staff who has been named the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Here is the complete top ten:

The Australian Financial Review Magazine's Covert Power List

  1. Philip Gaetjens (Prime Minister and Cabinet department secretary)
  2. John Kunkel (Chief of Staff to Scott Morrison)
  3. Mathias Cormann (Minister for Finance)
  4. Yaron Finkelstein (Principal Private Secretary, Prime Minister's Office)
  5. Nick Warner (Director-General National Intelligence)
  6. Rupert Murdoch (Media mogul)
  7. Andrew Hirst (Federal Director, Liberal Party)
  8. Catherine Livingstone (Commonwealth Bank Chair)
  9. Alan Joyce (Qantas CEO)
  10. Ian Silk (Australian Super CEO)

What do you think?

What do you think of these lists of people with cultural clout versus people with covert and overt power? In many ways I think the categories are artificial. I also think it’s interesting that most of the lists are made up of politicians and corporate figures, even though more and more Australians are disengaging from politics and the business world and seeking meaning through self-improvement and spirituality. The cultural figures are either sports people or people working in the creative arts. There is not one religious or spiritual leader on the list, not one person who advocates personal growth, not even an influencer who has blogged on mental health. What does this say about Australia? Or do the editors of The Fin Review not yet realise that people are turning away from the mainstream and going online to seek alternatives? What are your thoughts?


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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