The PM may be the most powerful person in Australia — but you don’t have to be well known to have real clout. (ABC RN: Simon Rankin)
Who are the most powerful people in Australia?
On the surface it’s a fairly simple question, but peel back the layers and things get interesting: some of the people with the most power are hardly known at all.
They’re people like John Kunkel, Paul Everingham, Greg Farrell and the others on this list — you probably wouldn’t recognise them on the telly, but their access and influence gives them real clout.
Many of them regularly meet our political leaders to lobby for what they want, although only one would admit to being a lobbyist.
Four of them run peak bodies. Three are connected to gambling. Two are part of the mining industry. One is concerned with education, one with activism and another with chemist shops — we’re not making that up.
But there’s no argument about who should be number one on this list.
John Kunkel, Prime Minister’s Office
John Kunkel’s job is complicated, difficult and important: he is the chief of staff to the Prime Minister, arguably the most powerful Australian in public life.
Dr Kunkel — he has a PhD in economics — sees Scott Morrison every day and has been in Canberra, on and off, for more than 25 years.
As chief of staff, he’s likely to have the last conversation with the Prime Minister before a big decision is made and his counsel will carry a lot of weight.
The really tricky part of the job involves telling Mr Morrison what he doesn’t want to hear.
Together with the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, Dr Kunkel manages the PM’s diary and determines who gets to see his boss.
Dr Kunkel’s doctorate is on US trade policy, and it’s what got him into working as a ministerial staffer, firstly for deputy prime minister Tim Fisher in 1998 and then for trade minister Mark Vaile.
He worked for the Howard government in the secretive Cabinet Policy Unit, crafting policies that would resonate with the Coalition base.
In 2010 Dr Kunkel shifted to the mining sector, working as deputy CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, and then as head of government relations at mining giant Rio Tinto.
Both of those roles are about access and lobbying, so both make use of who you know.
And Dr Kunkel knew plenty of people, especially on the Coalition side.
After eight years in the private sector, he came back to Parliament House in the middle of last year, replacing Phil Gaetjens as the most senior aide to Mr Morrison, then the treasurer.
Paul Everingham, WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy
Paul Everingham heads up Western Australia’s peak mining industry lobby group. (ABC RN: Simon Rankin)
“I’m not that important,” he protests, “I’m just busy.”
But Paul Everingham is important.
As the son of the Northern Territory’s first chief minister, he knows how politics works.
He was executive director and chief executive of the Liberal Party in Western Australia and now heads the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia (CME).
If a West Australian politician dares to take on the mining sector, they face fierce campaigning by the chamber.
Former Nationals leader Brendon Grylls copped a relentless advertising campaign when he tried to increase the iron ore levy.
He ended up losing his seat of Pilbara, which had an 11.4 per cent margin at the last state election.
“The industry took a pretty forthright position,” Mr Everingham says of the lobby’s multi-million-dollar campaign, which unfolded before he joined the CME.
“[The] mining industry … would rather do things quietly and professionally and sit down at a table and negotiate, but unfortunately in this circumstance this was thrown at them.”
Anthony Ball, Clubs NSW
Anthony Ball has been the chief executive of Clubs NSW for nine years.
He played a critical role in the campaign against independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s push for pre-commitment technology and a $1 maximum bet on all poker machines nationally.
Mr Wilkie was in a unique, powerful position in 2010.
He agreed to support the Gillard minority government if it rolled out gambling reforms.
But the deal was eventually watered down and Mr Wilkie withdrew his support in 2012.
Clubs NSW ran a successful grassroots campaign against the reforms, which included protest marches in regional communities and marginal seats.
The campaign used just $3.4 million of Clubs NSW’s announced $40 million budget.
Clubs NSW represents more than 1,200 member clubs and according to its website “makes an important contribution to state and national policy direction”.
Stephen Galilee, NSW Minerals Council
Stephen Galilee has been the chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council since 2012, representing the state’s $24 billion mining sector.
The role involves lobbying politicians, advocating for a sector that polarises views, and in the words of The Australian newspaper, “fighting a well-organised level of activism that is determined to shut down the industry you are paid to protect”.
Mr Galilee recently wrote an opinion piece defending the future of coal, and warned that the looming closure of the Liddell Power Station could mean a Special Minister for Blackouts might be needed in the future.
Prior to joining the Minerals Council, Mr Galilee worked in senior roles in politics, including as an adviser to John Howard and Tony Abbott.
He was also chief of staff to former federal resources minister Ian Macfarlane, and to Mike Baird when he was NSW treasurer.
Peter V’landys, Racing NSW
Peter V’landys has secured several major victories for the racing industry. (ABC RN: Simon Rankin)
Peter V’landys, the chief executive of Racing NSW and an Australian Rugby League Commissioner, is widely regarded as the most influential man in the racing industry.
He has secured several major wins for the industry, including an unprecedented $235 million rescue package from the Howard Government during the 2007 equine influenza outbreak.
He also found victory against Betfair in the High Court, which ruled in 2012 that Racing NSW was entitled to have a slice of their wagering turnover.
The ruling significantly changed the racing industry nationally, as it opened the door for any sport to share in the profits made by interstate betting agencies.
Mr V’landys also took on the Catholic Church when it wanted to use the Randwick racecourse for World Youth Day in 2008, securing a $40 million compensation package from the church, federal and state governments.
“If I think I’m doing the right thing, I just go forward and I take no prisoners,” he says.
But he also had a major marketing misstep recently, when the use of the Sydney Opera House sails to promote the Everest horse race sparked a national backlash and public protests.
Jacinta Collins, National Catholic Education Commission
Jacinta Collins is now the executive director of the National Catholic Education Commission. (ABC RN: Simon Rankin)
Jacinta Collins served as a Labor senator for Victoria from 1995 to 2005, and again from 2008 to 2019.
She was appointed executive director of the influential National Catholic Education Commission in February, just days after she made her valedictory speech in the Upper House.
Ms Collins strongly defended federal funding for Catholic schools ahead of the Morrison Government’s offer of $4.5 billion to Catholic and independent schools last year.
The NCEC is the strongest performing Catholic lobby, representing 770,000 students and 1,750 schools nationally.
Greg Farrell, Federal Group
Greg Farrell played a critical role in the campaign against Labor in the 2018 Tasmanian election. (ABC RN: Simon Rankin)
Greg Farrell has been the managing director of the privately-owned Federal Group since 1989.
While the family company is based in Sydney, its power base is in Tasmania, where it runs the state’s two casinos and has sole licence to operate all of the state’s poker machines for free.
The lucrative arrangement has been in place since 1973 and is set to expire in 2023.
During the 2018 election campaign, Labor pledged to remove all poker machines from Tasmanian pubs and clubs by 2023, if it won. It didn’t.
Mr Farrell played a critical role in the campaign against Labor, with his company launching a series of pro-pokies advertisements for TV, radio and social media.
It’s still unknown exactly how much the Farrells spent during the election.
Documents released by the Australian Electoral Commission show Federal Group donated at least $50,000 to the Liberal Party in the 2017-18 financial year.
The family’s wealth is worth more than $460 million.
George Tambassis, Pharmacy Guild of Australia
George Tambassis heads up the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, which represents businesses in every electorate. (ABC RN: Simon Rankin)
The Pharmacy Guild represents pharmacist-owners, so businesses in every community (and every electorate).
This means they have the potential to run very effective campaigns.
As Crikey’s political editor Bernard Keane puts it: “Who are they talking to? They’re mostly talking to the elderly. So the Coalition in particular is vulnerable to a scare campaign from the Pharmacy Guild to say, ‘Well, we don’t like this so we will tell all of our customers. And we’ll put posters up telling our customers that the government has made a terrible decision that will hurt them.'”
Keane says that is an “extraordinarily potent weapon to wield in discussions”.
“That’s why we don’t have supermarket pharmacies in Australia. You can’t walk into a Woollies or a Coles and go to the pharmacy section, because the Pharmacy Guild would go nuts and say, ‘We will destroy you if you did whoever allow that.’ It happens.”
George Tambassis is the national president of the guild, which has seen off successive attempts to make community pharmacies more competitive.
The guild has also successfully resisted moves to restrict the sale of natural and complementary medicines in pharmacies, or at least to display them in a designated place within the pharmacy.
Natalie O’Brien, GetUp!
Natalie O’Brien says GetUp! is “not in the business of changing government”. (ABC RN: Simon Rankin)
Natalie O’Brien joined GetUp! in 2013, after a stint at the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet and having campaigned on issues including marriage rights and immigration during the 2012 US presidential election.
She is now the chief of staff of the activist group, which knows how to galvanise support with hundreds of thousands of foot and online “soldiers” for various political campaigns.
But the movement has become more aggressive with its tactics in recent years.
At the 2015 Queensland state election, it handed out how-to-vote cards urging voters to put the LNP last on their ballot paper.
“We’re not in the business of changing government,” Ms O’Brien says, “we’re in the business of trying to get progressive policies on the agenda no matter which party wants to pick up those policies”.
In the 12 months to the May 18 federal election, GetUp! secured more than $13.6 million in donations.
The conservative lobby group Advance Australia has accused the group of attempting “voter control” through door-knocking and petitions.
“We’ve definitely become the poster boy of the left,” Ms O’Brien says.
“There’s a bunch of people on the right side of politics that would like GetUp! to be discredited and have cynical attacks that try to paint us as some kind of political party rather than a grassroots activist organisation, which is what we are.”
David Bell, Crosby Textor Group
David Bell leads Crosby Textor’s operations in Australia, New Zealand and Asia. (ABC RN: Simon Rankin)
David Bell has been at the global lobby powerhouse since November 2017, after a decade as CEO of the Australian Bankers’ Association.
He has also managed corporate affairs with Westpac, IAG and Telstra, and has held senior roles with the New South Wales government.
He now leads Crosby Textor’s operations in Australia, New Zealand and Asia.
The C|T Group was founded in Australia by former Howard government advisor Sir Lynton Crosby and pollster Mark Textor.
It is credited with masterminding the election strategies of London Mayor Boris Johnson in 2008 and 2012, and steering the Conservative Party in the UK to an unexpected victory in 2015.
Recently The Guardian reported that the C|T Group helped run a secret global campaign to prop up coal demand on behalf of the multinational mining giant Glencore.
According to The Guardian, the campaign was dubbed Project Caesar and involved setting up online grassroots groups to push positive messaging about clean coal technology, attack renewables and criticise the Australian Labor Party.
Who Runs This Place? is a four-part series on RN presented by Richard Aedy, exploring how power works and how it is changing.