An 18-year-old woman from the NSW Central Coast, on her first night out in Sydney’s Kings Cross, is led into an alleyway behind a nightclub by the 21-year-old son of the nightclub’s owner. There she loses her virginity, on hands and knees, gravel tearing into her skin. She alleges rape. He says he thought she consented. The case drags on for five years, through two trials and two appeals, during which the accuser remains anonymous and the accused is eventually acquitted.
In May this year, that young woman, Saxon Mullins, now a 23-year-old office worker, stepped into the spotlight, telling the ABC’s Four Corners program that she’d always dreamed her first time would on a bed strewn with rose petals with someone who loved her, rather than an alleyway with someone whose name she couldn’t remember. “There’s something I need to get off my chest. Those awful things happened to me,” she told Four Corners. “I am that girl.”
The Australian Financial Review Magazine defines cultural power as the ability to shape Australia’s view of itself, crystallise an overarching issue in any given year, or reflect us back to ourselves. It is not the first time the Power panel has put allegations of sexual assault at the top of the list. In 2004, the number one spot went to the “Bulldogs whistleblower”, who alleged sexual assault by six members of the NRL team and had – in the panel’s view – rocked the foundations of not just Australian sport but society more broadly.
The woman had remained anonymous throughout the controversy, which did not result in charges. That a young woman of a similar age would go on camera 14 years later to tell her story herself and pose for the AFR Magazine’s photographer – confident, composed and defiant, just 300 metres from where the incident took place – highlights not only how much power has changed in the interim, but its particular characteristics today.
Mullins’ appearance on Four Corners not only sparked a national debate; it so disturbed NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman that he referred the state’s sexual-consent laws to the NSW Law Reform Commission.
The power of an individual story
In eschewing the anonymity of a system she felt had failed her, Mullins symbolises the power of an individual to personify and articulate an issue that is otherwise hidden, misunderstood or taboo. To bring it into focus, galvanise what many see as a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, a broad appetite for change, that only waits on such figures and moments.
Mullins also epitomises the key quality required. “Power right now is about bravery, says Russel Howcroft, PwC’s chief creative officer and cultural power panelist. “It’s about an individual who takes it upon themselves to reveal something hidden or unknown – about themselves, their experience, the way things work – and that is just insanely brave.”
As for the issue Mullins had galvanised, it ran through the past 12 months and the cultural power panel’s discussion. The #MeToo movement crystallised in the United States around sexual harassment allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a man who had formerly tied only with God in terms of thank yous in Oscar acceptance speeches. In the absence of a scalp of similar scale, the Australian variant had come to encompass not only harassment in the workplace but violence against women more broadly; its defining visual moment the midwinter candle-light vigil for Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon, who was raped and murdered one June evening in the city’s inner north as she walked home from a gig.
As the panel sees it, a number of figures have been instrumental in the local debate, particularly journalist Tracey Spicer, who sent the initial tweet a year ago asking women to contact her with their stories. The tweet sparked more than 1600 responses in the first six months.
While no one doubts Spicer has been a major catalyst, the panel feels the issue has been articulated most compellingly by the women who came forward to make allegations on the record and on camera. And no one personified the power imbalance as dramatically as Mullins. “In America, the #MeToo campaign isn’t fronted by journalists,” says Melbourne Theatre Company chief executive and artistic director Brett Sheehy. “It’s fronted by [actresses] Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino.”
Snapshot of a turbulent year
That ability to cut through – immediately, viscerally, from the one to the many – isn’t just the defining characteristic of cultural power in 2018. It is one of the only sure things about it in a year in which a prime minister poised to be the longest-serving since John Howard on a Monday could be gone by Friday, and a 177-year-old media brand could appear to evaporate overnight.
The power list is always a snapshot of a moment in time. This year it caught major convulsions mid-churn. Twenty-four hours before the panel meets on July 27 at Automata, Clayton Wells’ celebrated restaurant in the inner-Sydney suburb of Chippendale, the merger between Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment hits the headlines out of a clear blue sky. And if that move was aimed at ensuring two traditional media players remained competitive in a rapidly changing digital world, major digital players didn’t look to be faring much better. By the close of business on the 27th, Facebook racks up the biggest sharemarket wipeout in US history, after revealing that 3 million users had abandoned the platform in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That $160 billion reversal dwarfs the hammering another Wall Street darling, the streaming platform Netflix, suffered 10 days earlier after posting disappointing subscriber growth.
Last year’s cultural power list featured the Murdochs in third position, representing the omnipresent water table of Australian media. While no one on this year’s panel doubts the family’s continuing power, Rupert Murdoch has migrated in 2018 to the covert list for reasons that would be highlighted during the change in federal leadership just a month later.
For the panel, there is also a larger point to be made: with the Fairfax/Nine deal yet to be finalised, and at the start of what is likely to be a wave of consolidations enabled by changes to media ownership laws, it is simply too early to declare winners and losers among those who control the means of distribution – or the “pipes and tubes” of media and entertainment, as Elizabeth Ann Macgregor puts it.
Not that there aren’t credible contenders. Macgregor, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, nominates outgoing SBS boss Michael Ebeid as having “successfully managed the challenges of new and traditional media, not least with [streaming service] SBS On Demand. He also made SBS the only place that is truly reflective of the diversity of contemporary Australia and truly risk-taking.”
Nine CEO Hugh Marks is the other obvious contender. “Given the deal announced yesterday, I was thinking he should be on the list because he will control a conglomerate,” says Citibank Australia chair Sam Mostyn. “But on reflection what’s really happening here is a response to changing power. The legislative change has enabled the creation of a powerful media entity to retain power. Those platforms and pipes remain incredibly influential, but are in a state of flux. It is not clear exactly where they’re all settling.”
Instead power in 2018 lies at either end of those pipes and tubes. “On one side, the real power is self-curation, the way we as consumers can and do curate what we watch and read,” Mostyn continues. “It’s because we have a remote control,” says Howcroft. “I think the [media] brand still plays a role, but less of a role than it used to play.”
On the other side of that power equation is anyone courageous, creative, cunning, narcissistic or authentic enough to galvanise the pipes, prime the platforms. To make people switch on. Like. Share.
Trump wields media power
“What is incredible is that the individual is actually able to jump the system and talk to the world,” says Howcroft, for whom Exhibit A is that seasoned media star, and current US President, Donald Trump, who tweets his constituency directly, leaving not just journalists but his own White House staff fumbling in his wake as they try to catch up, mediate, interpret.
“I get all the negatives of it, but I think the world is getting used to it and saying, ‘Hang on, this is actually quite interesting,’” Howcroft says. “We talk about wanting transparent government; well, here’s the most powerful politician in the world and he is 100 per cent transparent.”
In fact, Trump marks the collision point of old and new power: the former by virtue of his office, the latter by virtue of the way he won and maintains it, communicating directly with his base as what Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describe in their book New Power as a “Platform Strongman, mastering new power techniques to achieve authoritarian ends”.
As Heimans and Timms describe it, old power works like a currency: jealously guarded by the few who hold it and dispensed judiciously, from on high. New power – exemplified by movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter – is more like a current: open, fluid, participatory, and most powerful when it surges. As they see it, Trump drives “the intensity of his crowd not by insisting they read his talking points, but by empowering them to activate around his values”.
In a New York Times column hailing New Power as the best window yet into “power structures … in serious flux”, conservative commentator David Brooks wrote: “If power in the Greatest Generation [those who grew up during the Great Depression] looked like Organisation Men running big institutions, and power for the Boomers looked like mass movements organised by charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, power these days looks like decentralised networks in which everyone is a leader and there’s no dominating idol.”
Distribution channels ‘in state of panic’
As the youngest member of this year’s cultural power panel, Margaret Zhang, points out, whole revolutions have taken place in the 18 years since the power list began. “The increasing democratisation of the internet and access to information has made people’s attention span so much shorter; the way they engage with information is so much more immediate and brief,” says Zhang, a stylist, writer, influencer and Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 listee.
“And distribution channels – media streaming, any kind of space where content is distributed – have become very reactive. They are in this state of panic about what consumers are already liking. In previous decades media and brands had authority, they defined what it was that people needed to see.”
Mostyn agrees: “You can no longer say that power comes in a linear way, top down. It is held by communities and it is held by individuals who help us understand what is going on and what issues mean and what’s changing.”
“As the oldest person in the room, I’m going with the youngest person in the room,” Michael Lynch says of Zhang’s comments about our fritzed attention spans. “There is a very dominant theme this year that the old paradigm – pale, male and stale – is over,” adds Lynch, the former boss of everything from the Australia Council and Sydney Opera House to London’s Southbank Centre and Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. “Things are changing and that really needs to be expressed.”
AFL selected refugees
Just how much is clear from the individuals the panel identifies as having helped Australians understand what is really happening – and changing – over the past 12 months. Such as the AFL selecting refugees Majak Daw, 27, the first Sudanese player to make the draft, and Aliir Aliir, 23, who was inspired by Daw.
The pair is pitched against each other a fortnight after the panel meets when Daw’s team, North Melbourne, takes on Aliir’s, the Sydney Swans, at Etihad Stadium. The match is a thriller, all the way down to the younger man’s match-winning goal. But it is the pairing of two pioneering African-Australian athletes against the backdrop of Australia’s ongoing immigration debate (and African immigration as the current flashpoint) that makes headlines internationally. “My job as a role model is trying to help [kids and teenagers] set the right path,” Aliir tells Britain’s Financial Times in a feature piece in August. “It doesn’t have to be sport, it could be education or study.”
To former AFL commissioner Sam Mostyn and Swans ambassador Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, Daw and Aliir dramatise the flipside of the debate in real time and in a forum everyone notices. “The impact they are having goes way beyond the football field,” agrees Howcroft. “This is our indigenous game and for these two fellows to take it on and be out there with more than a million people watching every weekend cannot be overestimated.”
“And they would both consider themselves Australian,” says Mostyn. “They started playing footy as young boys arriving in Australia, and have brought their families and communities to the game. Those communities now feel welcome at a time when African Australians are so maligned.”
Similarly, wheelchair athlete Kurt Fearnley’s entrance at the head of the Australian team at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games – an event that had featured the most extensive para-sports program ever – is seen as symbolising the mainstream normalisation of disability.
It was a banner-bearing moment by a man who had figuratively carried the flag for disability for decades, in a year that will also include the looming Invictus Games in Sydney. A year too, in which wheelchair athlete Dylan Alcott had been ubiquitous as a sports commentator and the face of ANZ.
“It’s transformative in advertising terms and in terms of getting him into the public consciousness,” says Mostyn of Alcott. “Good on ANZ for picking him up,” says Howcroft. “And at a time when we can’t say anything nice about banks,” adds Lynch.
From disability to black-white relations. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull may have dismissed the Uluru Statement from the Heart in October last year, but a month before the leadership spill, the panel prefers its chances of survival to those of any one political leader. And fittingly, in a year in which NAIDOC Week celebrated the continuing contribution of Indigenous women, it is women who are seen as leading that fight this year.
Voice of Indigenous Australians
Last year Megan Davis and the Referendum Council made the cultural power list for the lengthy and consultative crafting of the statement. While it is harder this year to single out one figure, the panel eventually settles on Lowitja Institute chair Pat Anderson, co-chair of the former Referendum Council, who used her October 2017 Charles Perkins memorial oration to again underline the urgency of the issue.
Whatever the political response, the issue of changing the constitution to include the voice of Indigenous Australians is resonating “from boardrooms to unions to women’s groups, youth activists, universities and schools,” says Mostyn.
“As Pat always says, this statement was written for the Australian people, not politicians, and there is a growing expectation it will ultimately be successful. Its power is on the ground, with people like [Uluru delegate] Thomas Mayor taking the statement to every nook and cranny, every boardroom and every union meeting, and getting the Australian public to actually engage with what that statement is about.”
Same-sex marriage campaigners
Just how successful a co-ordinated, multi-tiered campaign can be was demonstrated by perhaps the defining cultural moment of the past 12 months, the November 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. With a whopping non-compulsory turnout of almost 80 per cent, and a yes vote of more than 61 per cent, there was no doubting the extraordinary cut-through of the campaign and the community’s emphatic response.
Magda Szubanski was key in mobilising middle Australia, from coming out on The Project in 2012 to launching the Yes campaign in 2017, while fronting everything from fundraising dinners in Toowoomba to Q&A and A Current Affair. But who were the real power players behind that best-known face?
The panel identifies NSW independent Alex Greenwich, activist Rodney Croome and Qantas boss Alan Joyce as the early architects of a strategy that only fully blossomed with Szubanski. And Joyce – whose $1 million personal donation was the campaign’s largest – is seen to have played the key role in winning the hearts and minds of corporate Australia. “He galvanised the Chairman’s Lounge – all those CEOs who said, ‘Yes, we’re up for it,’” says Howcroft. “Australian CEOs need to find their voice and Alan did in this instance,” says Mostyn. “He was his authentic self.”
That last point is crucial. As important as Joyce’s role in the debate is the simple fact of leading an issue, and leading it authentically – something seen as all too lacking in corporate Australia. “That’s why it’s cultural power,” says Howcroft. “Authenticity and leadership have become a really significant discussion in boardrooms.”
‘Nanette’ embodied authenticity
And beyond. The day after the panel meets, the federal government suffers losses in all the three seats it had targeted in the Super Saturday byelections. Within a month, Turnbull’s prime ministership ends after backflips on two of the defining issues of his tenure: corporate tax cuts and the National Energy Guarantee.
“Authenticity matters because there’s a dearth in our traditional forms of leadership,” says Mostyn. “And that’s actually what our list has at its core: these people have an authenticity that you can’t have as a media platform owner, where you are a facilitator, a pipe or a platform.”
The exemplar of that phenomenon in 2018 is Tasmanian-born comedian Hannah Gadsby. Her short-lived farewell to comedy, Nanette, which Netflix filmed at the Sydney Opera House, is a real-time examination of what happens when a victim declines to shrug off discrimination and violence with a comforting punchline. Or as Gadsby puts it in the show: “This tension? It’s yours … I am not helping you anymore.”
In just months, Nanette had perhaps the greatest breakout hit launched from an Australian stage. The New York Times acclaimed it as “the most-talked-about, written-about [and] shared-about comedy act in years, exquisitely timed to the #MeToo era,” while to The New Yorker it was “a commentary on comedy itself – on what it conceals, and on how it can force the marginalised to partake in their own humiliation”. The show even managed a 100 per cent approval rating on online aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
A woman whose work had always come from the margins had “stepped into her power”, Mostyn says. The fact that it occurred more than a decade after Gadsby began winning awards – and a year after Nanette took out best comedy gongs from Melbourne to Edinburgh – only underlines the power of those pipes and platforms to propel the right person and the right issue at the right time, whatever the flux surrounding them at the moment.
To Sheehy the show underlines a dominant theme of this list and 2018. “Nanette is a real cri de coeur for respect,” he says. “And for me that is what a lot of the past 12 months has been about: respect for those of a different colour, gender or sexuality.”
War on waste
Another comedian who has found a higher purpose is Chaser alumnus Craig Reucassel, who is seen as a no-brainer for inclusion this year for what Howcroft calls “the multi-platform one-man revolution” that was his ABC TV War on Waste program. The show spans TV, podcasts and the broadcaster’s most successful social media campaign yet. Hovering around 900,000 viewers an episode in its first season, it has been linked to everything from quadrupling KeepCup sales to eradicating bags from supermarkets through its #BanTheBag campaign.
War on Waste has made the environment, long the province of worthy documentaries, compelling, actionable and participatory. And that was storytelling – and new power – of the first order. “It’s the evolution of that prank format from The Chaser, which has now matured into something with very real impact and power,” says Adelaide Film Festival creative director Amanda Duthie. “It’s still funny. There are still lots of got-you moments, but it has the energy and scale to activate so many different communities all over the country.”
Even Scott Morrison has tuned in. In his first speech as Prime Minister, he said he had seen the program, and hinted at a possible crackdown on plastics and other disposables. You never know who might be watching.
The other thing about those pipes is, as Howcroft points out, “they’re a hungry beast that needs feeding. The power lies in the food – compelling content – rather than the service.” Two decades after Bill Gates declared content to be king, the catchcry has never been truer, nor the demand greater, says Duthie. “Streaming services have proliferated. They’re all competing on content. And we don’t watch episodes week by week any more. It’s ‘Bang! I’m going to watch the whole series at once and I’ll need something else by Monday.’”
Nor is content’s primacy limited to any one format or platform. “It’s about cinema, it’s about social media, it’s about TV, it’s about print,” Duthie continues. “Because in the end, for all of them, the story is what matters. In the end it’s the storytellers that matter.”
The power of storytelling
And none more so than Tony Ayres, co-founder of Matchbox Pictures and the man behind everything from The Slap and Benjamin Law’s Family Law to Glitch, Ali’s Wedding, Nowhere Boys and The Real Housewives of Melbourne. Underlining how increasingly borderless the appetite for content has become, Ayres announced the launch of his own production company 10 days before the panel meeting, backed by Matchbox owner NBCUniversal, to focus on what he called “more international-facing” dramas.
“Tony is a genuine Australian storyteller,” says Howcroft. “He thinks deeply about Australia, his work addresses the immigrant and race issues we’ve been discussing and he will only go onward and upward.”
On the subject of storytelling, Sheehy also nominates the very public theatre of the banking royal commission. “If we think of cultural power as being the things that reflect us back to ourselves, they have really started to define our identity.”
The panel agrees that the royal commission’s storytelling – typified by made-for-sharing grabs of the youthful, restrained counsel assisting, Rowena Orr, QC, delivering a daily coup de grâce just in time for the news – had been conscious, strategic and brilliantly effective. In the end, however, the tectonic shift worked by the royal commission is recognised by commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s fourth position on the overt power list.
Australia’s own story
As for telling the story of Australian culture on the international stage, Duthie nominates Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton, whose second feature, Sweet Country, won the Venice Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize in September 2017, consolidating an international reputation forged by his debut feature, Samson and Delilah, which took out the Caméra d’Or in Cannes almost a decade ago. “Those films have travelled the world,” says Duthie. “They are both supremely elegant pieces of work.
“And Warwick typified another really interesting dimension of so many of the people on this year’s list: they are the faces of whole groups of people working together, whether it’s Warwick and his crew or Pat and the extensive network of people working for constitutional recognition, or Saxon and the women involved in #MeToo, or Tony and the talent at Matchbox. Their vision and energy helps lead and galvanise, but it’s a real group effort.”
Thornton also crossed into the visual arts at the highest level, as Macgregor points out, exhibiting his work Mother Courage – a mobile installation featuring an Indigenous woman doing dot paintings – at the prestigious documenta art exhibition in Germany. That Thornton sees his work as the contemporary continuation of the storytelling tradition of the world’s oldest living culture only reinforces his nomination.
The panel is keen to recognise how powerful contemporary art has become more broadly in Australian culture of late, thanks both to state-sponsored projects and the emergence of a new wave of philanthropists. In June, Victoria and South Australia unveiled plans for new galleries, following the lead of the Art Gallery of NSW’s Sydney Modern Project and Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).
The rise and rise of philanthropy
Earlier this year, Rich List Melbourne developer Michael Buxton launched his $26 million Buxton Contemporary, at Melbourne University, the latest of a string of galleries funded by individuals, including the Besen family’s TarraWarra Museum of Art in the Yarra Valley, Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit Gallery of Chinese art in Sydney and MONA itself.
That flowering is the outcome of one of the greatest periods of wealth creation in Australia’s history combined with Howard-era changes to encourage and entrench a culture of private philanthropy in this country. “It’s the rise and rise of the philanthropist,” says Duthie. “It’s not just about gallery spaces. It’s about performance spaces as well, like the $7 million-plus recital hall Ulrike Klein built in the Adelaide Hills. We are seeing fantastic new waves of philanthropy coming through and it feels a lot more national now. I don’t know who is the poster child for that, but absolutely we need to recognise the development.”
While Buxton Contemporary is the most recent example, in the end Michael Lynch nominates Judith Neilson for her ever-expanding philanthropic portfolio, which includes the $10 million endowment of a chair of architecture at the University of NSW and patronage of organisations ranging from Anti Slavery Australia to the Sydney Dance Company and Sydney Film Festival.
“What is unique about Judith is that, having established White Rabbit with her former husband and family, she has gone on to ensure it has real longevity by endowing it so that it will never become a burden down the track,” says Macgregor. “It is an act of genuine philanthropy.”
The AFR Magazine Power issue is out on Friday October 5 inside The Australian Financial Review.