Saturday 30 May 2020 | 17:27 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The Lowy Institute conducts significant research on Australia's diplomacy, and its long-standing public opinion polling program, the Lowy Institute Poll, has become an important input into Australian foreign policy since 2005. The Institute also runs the Australia-Papua New Guinea Network, an innovative public diplomacy project to foster people-to-people links between the two countries.

Australia is one of the most highly globalised nations on the planet and extremely dependent on an effective and active diplomacy. In a region undergoing rapid and transformational change, where shifting power balances are creating uncertainty about the existing regional order, Australia’s security and prosperity rely heavily on its international networks and relationships with both near neighbours and geographically-distant allies.

Research on Australia's diplomatic network

The Lowy Institute has conducted ground-breaking comparative research on Australia’s diplomacy and that of like-minded nations. It focuses on Australia's diplomatic network and the resourcing of its international policy infrastructure. It has also produced influential studies on public diplomacy, digital diplomacy, and consular affairs. The Institute’s work has been instrumental in shaping a parliamentary enquiry into Australia’s diplomatic network,  providing independent, non-partisan policy options to steer Australia’s diplomatic future. In 2016, the Lowy Institute released the Global Diplomacy Index, an interactive web tool which maps and ranks the diplomatic networks of all G20 and OECD nations. The interactive allows readers to visualise some of the most significant diplomatic networks in the world, see where nations are represented – by city, country, and type of diplomatic mission – and rank countries according to the size of their diplomatic network.

Australia-Papua New Guinea Network

In an important public diplomacy initiative, the Institute runs the Australia-Papua New Guinea Network, a program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to foster people-to-people links between Australia and Papua New Guinea. For more about the Australia-Papua New Guinea network and its activities, access the site here.

The Lowy Institute Poll

To inform the public debate on Australia's foreign policy, the Institute has conducted annual polling of Australian public opinion on foreign policy since 2005. The annual Lowy Institute Poll has become one of the Lowy Institute’s flagship publications. It is the leading tracking survey on Australian foreign policy, providing a reliable vehicle for understanding Australian attitudes towards a wide range of foreign policy issues, while being independent and methodologically rigorous. Over the course of the past decade the Poll has uncovered significant shifts in public sentiment, including towards our most important neighbours and partners. It has tracked attitudes on contentious international issues ranging from climate change to war in the Middle East.

The annual Poll is entirely funded by the Lowy Institute to ensure its ongoing independence, and its questionnaire and results are thoroughly reviewed by one of Australia’s most experienced polling experts, Sol Lebovic, the founder and former managing director of Newspoll. Data sets are deposited with the Australian Social Science Data Archive where they are available free of charge for public scrutiny.

One of the best ways to explore the data from our twelve years of polling is through our interactive site. Access the interactive here.

Alternatively, to download the poll reports for each year, click on these links:

In addition to its Australian polling program, the Lowy Institute has conducted influential polls in several of our most important neighbours in Indo-Pacific Asia, including India (2012), Indonesia (2006 and 2011), New Zealand (2007 and 2012), China (2009) and Fiji (2011).

 

Experts

Natasha Kassam
Research Fellow, Diplomacy and Public Opinion Program
Alex Oliver
Director of Research

Latest publications

Politics comes first in China's agony

In an opinion piece originally published in the Financial Review, Natasha Kassam argues that China's biggest concern in dealing with the new coronavirus is maintaining stability and keeping its grip on information.

New Year on Australia’s fire ravaged coast

This was supposed to be an idyllic week on the east and south coasts of Australia, when thousands of families traditionally set off after Christmas for their beach holidays at houses, caravan parks and campgrounds scattered down our long, magnificent coastline. 

We were among the hordes headed south from Sydney. There had been fires in the previous weeks, and some warnings to stay away. But our holiday was planned, the existing fires seemed to have abated somewhat, and we abandoned caution and set off anyway. We made one good decision that day, leaving my children – two young adults and one teenager – at home, due to join us on New Year’s Day if the coast was (literally) clear. The common message from friends in the country and on the coast as we made our way down was the need to support local communities down there; many rely on January tourism for their livelihoods.

Our reliance on information via the internet and broadband communications left us exposed. Nothing was working, mobile phone coverage was almost non-existent. Emergency services’ websites were inaccessible. Fridges warmed, ice melted, houses heated up.

The smoke haze was thick, but not much worse than it had been in Sydney in the weeks leading to Christmas. The beaches were pristine and the water cool. But then the heat came on New Year’s Eve, the plumes of bushfire smoke over the area became bigger and darker, the power supply was cut, and with it, all communications. Our reliance on information via the internet and broadband communications left us exposed. Nothing was working, mobile phone coverage was almost non-existent. Emergency services’ websites were inaccessible. Fridges warmed, ice melted, houses heated up. Our New Year’s Eve celebration with friends down the road was spent by candlelight, warily eyeing the coastline to the north, dotted with fires which flared up as darkness fell. Messages from family (via Facebook’s messenger service, which apparently uses very little data, allowing short text messages to get through) informed us that the road out of the town and back to Sydney was closed in both directions.

After an uneasy night, we ventured down to the town. We were touched by small acts of human kindness. The thoughful local bottle-shop owner who handed out free ice while supermarkets were closed. The locksmith who came to help unlock an electric gate which had stuck closed, leaving us unable to get our car out of the driveway if we needed to leave quickly. People shared stories on the street. Anxiety was palpable. There was nothing much we could do. We had food and water, but little appetite.

My children sent messages wishing us happy new year, and asking us what we’d done during the day. Read, walked, watched, fretted, was my response. We sat in the car listening to the local ABC radio coverage. That coverage – comprehensive, human, informative – felt like our best friend over those two days when nothing much else was getting through. That, and the Rural Fire Service with its exhausted volunteers out there fighting blazing fire fronts on our behalf.

These first days of 2020 have been terrible, but the worst is apparently yet to come with temperatures and winds set to rise this weekend. What appears to be half the state of New South Wales and much of Victoria is on fire. The federal government’s response seems to have struggled to strike the right tone with communities affected by the disaster. People who have lost their properties or worse – friends or colleagues killed in the fires – are visibly and viscerally angry. At their own plights, but also those of their communities and their strained fire-fighting services, many of which are staffed by exhausted volunteers who have been battling fires on many fronts for months.

The federal government has so far painted the crisis as a natural disaster, and a matter primarily for state government emergency services to handle in coordination with federal agencies such as the Australian Defence Force. There has been a seeming reluctance at a federal level to link the fires, and the drought which preceded them, directly to climate change or Australia’s climate policy. Early indications of the government’s policy responses are a focus on hazard reduction (reducing fuel loads around homes and residential areas). The government has reiterated the current policy of adhering to existing targets under the Paris accords, citing Australia’s small contribution to global emissions and the limits of its ability to counter rising emissions from the largest carbon-emitting countries. In the context of this fire crisis, this stance risks inflaming tensions among the more than half of Australians (according to Lowy Institute and other polling) who see climate change as a serious and pressing problem and who seek stronger action from government.

We managed to leave the South Coast in the early hours of 2 January when the main highway – the only way out – was opened briefly in the middle of the night. For much of the way up the coast, burning embers, fallen logs, and glowing tree trunks lined the road. Every side street was barred by police or fire trucks, hinting at the devastation behind the roadblocks. I silently lamented my foolish decision to travel south, placing an additional potential burden on local emergency authorities.  

Our lost, longed-for beach holiday is now a distant regret. What's left is grief for our ravaged countryside. 

We are holding our breaths for what is to come tomorrow.

Ironclad - Forging a new future for America's alliances: book chapter

In a new book edited by Dr. Michael J. Green of Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington D.C., the final chapter by Alex Oliver looks at international public opinion towards the US' system of alliances and finds that attitudes have been surprisingly resilient despite domestic and external challenges. The book can been accessed here.

Australian attitudes to China shift: 2019 Lowy Poll

Among many interesting findings in this year’s Lowy Institute Poll, one new question produced a particularly striking result given Australia’s debate over how to navigate the looming tech cold war between the US and China.

44% said “protecting Australians from foreign state intrusion” should be the government’s first priority when consdiering which foreign companies should be allowed to supply new technology for important services. 

This ranked well ahead of access to the most sophisticated technology (28%) and keeping prices down for Australian consumers (28%).

This suggests the government has public support for its August 2018 decision to ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE Networks from taking part in the construction of the national 5G network for national security reasons; and sits with the most startling finding of this year's survey: trust in China to act responsibly in the world dropped a huge 20 points to 32%.

Australia was an outlier in the 5G decision at the time, which remains deeply unpopular with the Chinese state, even while it disavows any direct connection with both companies. But since then, Australia’s move has been followed by New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan and most enthusiastically, the US, which has gone much further; even banning US companies including chipmakers and Google from dealing with Huawei at all.  

The UK, Germany and France have permitted selective involvement in 5G from Huawei under increased security measures; and it is still an open question in many other countries. China is likely to keep the pressure up as positions harden on both sides.

You couldn’t rule out xenophobic overreaction on our part, but the reputation of Chinese investment has also been indelibly tainted through its politicisation by the Chinese government.

 

The focus on national security priorities when it comes to new technology aligns with other results in the 2019 poll. Cyber attacks from other countries are seen as a critical threat by 62%, up 5 points from last year and the second highest result after climate change at 64%.  

And in 2019 more Australians are concerned about foreign interference in Australian politics. 49% say foreign interference in Australian politics is a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, up 8 points from last year. This significant shift in public concern follows last year’s new legislation designed to prevent foreign interference, which earned a frosty reception in Beijing.  

Chinese investment is on Australian’s minds too. The share of Australians who believe the government is allowing “too much” investment from China has steadily climbed from 50% a decade ago to 68% in 2019.

You couldn’t rule out xenophobic overreaction on our part, but the reputation of Chinese investment has also been indelibly tainted through its politicisation by the Chinese government. China has weaponised tourism against South Korea; buying power against Norway; and obliquely threatened Australia over the flows of Chinese students, coal and wine exports; all following the respective countries’ political decisions Beijing did not like. Politically neutral investment makes Belgium and Japan - Australia’s third and fourth largest sources of FDI, well ahead of China - uncontroversial.

These results match with a general souring on China in the poll, where China’s score on the annual feelings thermometer dropped 9 points to 49 degrees.

77% agree Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region even if this affects our economic relationship – a similar question in 2015 saw 66% agree.

74% say Australia is too economically dependent on China.

79% agree that China’s infrastructure investment projects are part of China’s plans for regional domination; just 44% characterise those projects across Asia as “good for the region”.

Only 27% say Australia is doing enough to pressure China to improve human rights, the lowest number since the question was first asked in 2008.

It all suggests a newly assertive, increasingly autocratic China will have an uphill battle in convincing foreign publics of its goodwill, even ones like Australia that have been generally warm to China, viewing it as a key economic partner. Over the past 15 years of Lowy polling, China’s economy, culture and people have generally beeen viewed positively and China has been viewed warmly (around 58 on the poll’s feelings thermometer for years); but its system of government and human rights record have always deeply troubled Australians. 

But it’s clear the economic gravitational force of China still exerts huge sway. When it comes to picking sides, the much-debated “China choice” that everyone would prefer we never have to make, between the US and China; Australians remain deeply divided.

50% said we should maintain strong relations with the US even if it might harm our relations with China; but 44% said the opposite – Australia should build stronger relations with China even if it might harm our US relationship.

Illustration: Matthew Martin

The polls were wrong, but here’s our poll, and why you should read it

It’s not exactly the best time to be releasing an opinion poll. In the wake of the 2019 election, there are fair questions about why we poll any more. But today we launch the Lowy Institute’s annual poll and it is still deeply revealing about Australian attitudes on foreign policy.

Before we look at some of the findings, first on polls in general.

The election polls were wrong. And not just within the margin of error wrong, as some have defended, which is true in particular cases but not true across the country.

What went wrong? There will be a review, and it will be hard to say – but we know that polling is getting harder. Here are a few (non-exhaustive) thoughts.

1. The samples weren’t sufficiently representative

Traditional polling has been living on borrowed time since the decline of the landline telephone. Polling 101 says this: you need a representative sample, and you need the people in the sample to tell you the truth. A sample is truly representative if all members of the population have a chance of being included in the sample and that their chance of inclusion is known.

Now that a White Pages isn’t representative of most of the country, pollsters are using a variety of methods including blending and “weighting” data from potential voters that they reach via mobile, fixed line telephones, and online. The confidence we have in the representativeness of the sample is therefore reduced significantly. Because fewer people answer their phones, it is cheaper to use robo-polling (computers asking questions by telephone), but this may introduce additional biases. Pollsters are constantly tweaking methodology, and traditional weightings protocols can struggle to keep up.

The decline of the landline telephone (Photo: m kasahara/Flickr)

2. Polls are at risk of being contaminated by conventional wisdom

Some commentators suggest that election polls are affected by “herding”. That is, pollsters tend to not publish results that differ too much from what the other pollsters are saying.

There is safety in numbers – and conventional wisdom said that the Coalition could not win the election. To the extent that no one wants to be an outlier, this can lead to polls all being wrong in the same direction.

The herd (Photo: ilirjan rrumbullaku/Flickr)

3. Election polls do not generally publish the undecided votes

When the two-party preferred is published as 49­–51, the data is actually something closer to 44–46 with 10% undecided. Pollsters that don’t otherwise account for the undecideds, assume that they will vote with a similar split to the rest of the poll. That is a significant proportion of the electorate about which to make assumptions, when elections are won and lost by a few points.

So there are challenges that election pollsters are dealing with. But here’s the thing. Issues polls – such as the Lowy Institute Poll – are different.

For starters, it is more affordable to ensure your sample is representative when you only poll once a year, rather than every few weeks. We use the only probability-based (equal chance of being represented) panel, Life in AustraliaTM, at significant cost but with confidence in the methodology and consequently, the result. Most of the large international firms also use panels of this nature.

There is less incentive for issues polls such as ours to align their results with other findings in the field. The Lowy Institute Poll is currently the only opinion poll focused solely on foreign policy in Australia. There is little in the way of conventional wisdom for us to adjust to, and no attempt to do so.

The Lowy Institute Poll repeats many questions from previous years, allowing us to track trends over time, rather than relying on a single result in a single year.

And possibly most importantly, we disclose all of the “don’t know” responses. We do this not only to be transparent and accurate, but also because for our purposes, “don’t know” can point to a lack of awareness, knowledge or engagement – all of which are important for policymakers to be aware of.

For us, it’s the trends that matter most.

The Lowy Institute Poll repeats many questions from previous years. This allows us to track trends over time, rather than relying on a single result in a single year. Small differences in results (49:51) don't change the interpretation of trends in the way they change the outcome in an election poll. So 49% of Australians say this year that foreign interference in Australian politics is “a critical threat” to Australia's interests, and 51% say the same thing about a severe downturn in the global economy. The two percentage points between those propositions are insignificant because they are within the margin of error: what really matters is that concern about foreign interference has risen eight points in one year, whereas concern about the global economy is stable.

Polls still have interesting stories to tell. People are asking what happened to the “climate election”. The 2019 Lowy Poll shows the highest levels of concern about climate change in the past decade. But it also shows falling levels of optimism about our economy. We can see how this may have played out in different electorates.

The Lowy Institute Poll gives Australians a voice on these pressing issues that will have an effect on them. In this sense, the Poll is democratic: and this poll finds 65% of Australians think democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. To dismiss public opinion polling entirely would be to dismiss public opinion.

Lowy Institute Poll 2019

After a year of heated domestic debate on issues such as climate change, foreign influence and technology, the 2019 Lowy Institute Poll reveals significant changes in how Australians view our most important international partners, and the world around us.

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