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The Australian has a very interesting section, at least online (I haven’t brought a weekend Australian so I’m not certain it’s in the print edition) of the 50 most influential people in Australian politics.

Most of them are politicians, with a handful of businessmen and activists, and a surprising number of staff members and public servants. I say surprising because these people are behind the scenes and wield their power out of the public eye.

Reading this list and the assessments of various people made me think of the nature of power and the use of it.

The Australian gave a good definition of influence as the ability to get things done and shape events. While the newspaper distinguished influence from power they have many similarities. Influence is a form of power, although being in positions of power does not necessarily give you influence.

Julia Gillard for instance, holds the most powerful position in the land but her influence has been weakened by leadership instability, the nature of a hung parliament and several political and policy mishaps by her and her colleagues. These weaknesses make it hard for her to do what she wants to get done.

This raises a second question about the nature of power and influence. How do you become influential?

The Australian remarked that political insiders dominated the list because outsiders, businessmen, activists and those for whom politics is maybe a passion but not a career don’t know how to get things done.  Power and influence don’t just come with the office, or grow on you like mildew on your shoe. You have to seek it and develop it. You have to have sound ideas and push for them in a persuasive manner.

In the modern age of the internet and cheap campaign slogans, the old-fashioned skills of getting along with people, being able to persuade them, policy-making and oratory are the backbone upon which political power is built.

The new political skills we think are dominant, like a dynamic media presence or partyroom number crunching, help us to present a message, but they can’t make up for the lack of a message in the first place. Leaders who will succeed in the long run need substance. They need smart ideas and clever ways of implementing them. This is why people are demanding Abbott to start producing real content.

Even if we have a message, the external skills of a modern politician are actually secondary to the old-fashioned skills like public speaking and getting along with people. To get things done you need to persuade others. People are more persuaded by an engaging and amiable person than by a clever 30-second TV ad. In the age of Twitter and 3-minute news reports you would think that public speaking is a relic of the politics of the past. But it’s not.

The politician who can present a convincing message in a convincing way develops a respect and authority for his views which buffer him from the cheap tactics of attack ads and doorstop interviews. That’s because great speeches, whether to a small private group or to the nation, have the ability to capture the imagination of your audience.

Influence in Canberra still belongs to the political insider who knows the tricks to political power plays. However, unless this edge is backed up by substance- by innovative policies, by persuasive presentation and interpersonal abilities, the politician is shallow, and their influence will be shallow. The question is, in this age of shallow influence and shallow political mediums, how can you develop a depth of character, skills and ideas that would be the foundation of influence?

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