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Two great Roman generals, Lucullus and Julius Caesar, both wanted a triumph, which was a parade celebrating a general’s victories and was the height of glory for a Roman general. Not only did it make you a celebrity overnight, it almost elevated you to the status of the divine.

However, only commanding generals could celebrate a triumph, and no soldier under arms, even generals, could enter Rome. Therefore it was very hard to pursue a political career in Rome if you wanted to celebrate a triumph.

When Lucullus’ political enemies denied him a triumph out of spite, he decided to sit and wait for the political winds to change. He had to wait, out of public life for over a decade, before he was allowed to triumph. By that point Lucullus was past his best, and his political career amounted to nothing.

Julius Caesar also deserved a triumph, but his political enemies, nervous of his ambitions, denied him one on the eve of an election. Instead of putting his electoral career on hold, Caesar gave up all claim to a triumph, and entered the city to contest the election, which he won easily, opening doors for the rest of his incredibly successful political career.

The difference between Lucullus and Caesar was that one appreciated the difference between real power and political fame and the other didn’t.

The difference is something that modern politicians should bear in mind.

Real political power is the ability to determine government policy. Politics comes from the Greek word polis meaning city, and politics could be defined as “how the polis ticks”. Political popularity can give you the limelight and get the media and the voters talking, but unless you are able to make government decisions you do not have power.

Tony Abbott is getting fantastic polling results and he dominates the media cycle. He even dominates the government’s media spin. Currently Gillard is attacking Abbott for his “destructive negativity”- a claim as hypocritical as it is negative.

But Abbott lacks power. He does not have the majority of votes on the floor of Parliament and he cannot make law; he cannot make the “city tick”.

Alternatively, the Gillard government is quite successful in passing its legislation through a hung parliament. It enacted its long-awaited carbon tax, it delivered its promised budget surplus (just), and Gillard, in Abbott’s own words, “won’t curl up and die.” Gillard still wields the real power in politics, and if Abbott forgets this, he risks becoming a victim of his own overreach.

But in a democracy, dominated by the media cycle, the appearance of power can rapidly translate into real power. The government might technically be passing it’s legislation, but it looks a right mess, with Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson both badgered by sex scandals and serious allegations of misuse of parliamentary money. To most voters the government is in bed with the extreme environmentalists (the Greens) and is pressing ahead with a hated carbon tax it promised to never deliver. These crises might not directly affect the government’s ability to get 51% of parliamentarians to vote for its bills, but it does mean that the people do not trust the government as stable, ethical and accountable. And when the people no longer trust the government, they vote it out.

The threat of voter vengeance gives Abbott political momentum, and certainly the government could get away with making certain political decisions if it wasn’t for Abbott’s opposition. In that sense Abbott has a taste of political power. But until he occupies the Lodge and kicks Labor out of government, all he has is the shadow of the real thing.

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