Wednesday 06 Jul 2022 | 19:46 | SYDNEY
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The Lowy Institute conducts significant research on public opinion around the world. Its long-standing public opinion polling program, the Lowy Institute Poll, has become an important input into Australian foreign policy since 2005.

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 China’s rise.

The annual Poll is entirely funded by the Lowy Institute to ensure its ongoing independence, and its questionnaire and results are thoroughly reviewed by independent consultants. 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 sixteen years of polling is through our interactive site. Access the interactive here. Copies of the previous Lowy Institute polls are available here.

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).

Latest publications

Same-sex marriage survey: Gen Y got involved and the pollsters got it right

The same-sex marriage survey, or the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey as the Australian Bureau of Statistics framed it, is finally done. The result – 61.6 % for, 38.4% against – is a strong one; at 1.604:1, it’s eerily similar to the golden ratio or ‘divine proportion’ in mathematics, architecture and science of 1.618. For someone who loves numbers, that’s a poetic end to a divisive and for some, very painful, process.

Of the many criticisms that have been levelled at the survey, my own included, the survey methodology was a central problem. It was not a vote in the way of Australian election voting. It was not compulsory and lasted a torturous 83 days from when the first surveys were posted to the outcome, leaving the entire process open to the reproach that any result could not accurately be said to be representative of national sentiment. The ABS wisely refrained from calling it a plebiscite, presumably on the basis that the postal method and voluntary nature meant that in a scientific sense it could not purport to be a true plebiscite.

Yet the response rate for the marriage survey was very high at 12,728 million of the eligible ‘universe’ of 16,006 million Australians; just 0.5 points shy of 80%. As a comparison point, the turnout rate at the last federal election was 91%.

A voluntary survey risked not capturing the views of young people. It’s hard to entice younger people to vote, even in compulsory elections. At the last federal election, the voting rate among eligible 18-19 year olds (taking into account their low enrolment rate) was low at around 66%, climbing to around 80% for 30 year-olds. This compares with the much higher rate of over 90% for those aged over 60.

Compounding this was the postal element. I’ve known 18 year olds who’ve never written a letter, never mind finding a letter box. Their elders had no problem with that of course, with almost nine in ten (89.6%) 70-74 year-olds responding to the same-sex marriage survey.

Yet the younger age groups did take part, despite those obstacles. The participation rate of 18-19 year olds – 78.2% - was almost as high as that of the whole population, 79.5%. The participation rate among Gen Y’s (18-34 year-olds) was above 75% overall.

Then there is the issue of accuracy. For once, the pollsters got it pretty much right.

There has been much consternation at recent failures of polling to predict the results of elections. The 2016 US presidential election, the Brexit vote, the 2015 UK election and the Scottish independence referendum all highlighted the vulnerability of a long-standing methodology which was somehow missing the ‘shy Tory’/’shy Trump’/’shy [insert appropriate political persuasion]’ effect. The ‘shy voter’ is, the theory goes, ashamed or wary of admitting to a conservative or ‘politically incorrect’ view.  

Attempts to predict the Marriage Law survey result ran the same risk. People responding to newspaper polls during the voting period might be wary of admitting they had responded ‘no’. One team of university researchers used data analytics to predict a narrow ‘no’ result, despite the mainstream news outlet surveys indicating the opposite. 

However, external polling done throughout the survey by various organisations fairly accurately predicted both the result and the turnout. Newspoll had the ‘yes’ vote at 58% last week with a 2.5% error margin, Essential Poll had it at 64% a few days earlier. Newspoll almost exactly predicted the final turnout at 79%.

Meanwhile, the wide margin of 23.2 points between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ vote in the marriage survey is one that Australia’s mainstream political parties could only dream of in a national vote. And with its 79.5% turnout, the voluntary marriage survey very nearly matched that of the last federal election, even with its compulsory element. If you factor in the informal vote of 5% at the 2016 election, the proportion of voters participating in the marriage survey fell only 6 points short of our last compulsory election.

That makes the result very hard to argue with.


The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll Interactive

The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll looks at Australians' reactions to a turbulent year in world politics.

The Poll, the thirtennth annual Poll by the Lowy Institute,  examines attitudes to important issues such as the importance of the US alliance in the Trump era, renewable energy, how Australians feel about the direction of the nation and world. The Poll provides data on how public opinion on some of our most important relationships, including those with China and the United States, is evolving.

To explore the updated 2017 Lowy Poll Interactive, click here. See the full 2017 report below.

2017 Lowy Institute Poll

After a turbulent year in global politics, the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll contains thought-provoking findings about how Australians have reacted to world events, and how they feel about the direction of our own nation.

2017 Lowy Institute Poll: Australians say global engagement and US alliance are safe – for now

This time last year, we labelled 2016 a year of polls; the Australian election, the Brexit vote, and the US presidential election dominated the news. It follows, then, that 2017 is a year for assessing the impact of the previous turbulent 12 months.

The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, finds that Australians have reacted to global events in a typically pragmatic way. But they are troubled about the direction of the world and divided about the way our own nation is travelling.

When asked their views on ‘the way things are going in the world today’, 79% of Australians respond that they are ‘dissatisfied’. And our feeling of safety – though still strong – remains at its lowest point in our 13 years of polling. While nearly four in five feel safe overall, only 20% say they feel ‘very safe’, down four points since last year and a significant 24 points since 2009.

International terrorism (68%) and North Korea’s nuclear program (65%) top the list of ‘critical’ threats to Australia’s vital interests. Climate change ranks third (57% say it’s a critical threat, up 11 points since 2014), along with cyberattacks from other countries (55%), and ahead of a ‘severe downturn in the global economy’ (53%), ‘the presidency of Donald Trump’ (42%), foreign investment (40%), and asylum seeker arrivals (38%).

In line with this rising perception of the threat of climate change, 54% of Australians see global warming as ‘a serious and pressing problem [and] we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs’ (up 18 points since 2012). And even in the midst of a fierce debate on energy security, almost all Australians (81%) prioritise government investment in renewables over traditional energy sources such as coal and gas ‘even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable’. Only 17% say ‘the government should focus on traditional energy sources such as coal and gas’. 

Nearly eight in ten (79%) of Australians see ‘the presidency of Donald Trump’ as a critical or important threat to Australia’s vital interests. The strong implication from the 2016 Poll was that Australians might recoil from the US alliance under a Trump presidency. At the time, nearly half the country (45%) said that ‘Australia should distance itself from the United States if it elects a president like Donald Trump’.

So far, however, the presidency of Donald Trump has not dented Australians’ support for the US alliance. In fact, support for the alliance has rebounded six points since last year with 77% saying the alliance is ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ important for Australia’s security. Only 29% now say ‘Australia should distance itself from the United States under President Donald Trump’ (16 points lower than the response to the corresponding question last year). Australians appear to have adjusted quickly to the reality of the Trump administration.

However, Donald Trump was unpopular here before the election and remains unpopular now. Six in ten Australians say Donald Trump causes them to have an unfavourable opinion of the United States. More strikingly, the number of Australians who trust the United States 'a great deal' to act as a responsible global power has halved since 2011. Only 20% of Australians now have a ‘great deal’ of trust in the United States to ‘act responsibly in the world’. The 61% of Australians who trust the United States overall (‘a great deal’ and ‘somewhat’) compares starkly with the 86% who trust Germany and Japan and the 90% who trust the United Kingdom (even after the Brexit vote in 2016, which only 19% of Australians supported).

While support for the US alliance remains strong, the friendship between the two nations is being stretched under the new US administration. When Australians are asked who is their ‘best friend’ in the world, the United States has halved its support since 2014, dropping to second place alongside the United Kingdom (17% nominating each as Australia’s best friend). New Zealand is the clear favourite, with 53% (up 21 points since 2014) nominating it as Australia’s best friend of six countries polled. A gulf has opened up between New Zealand and the rest.

Australians’ pragmatism continues to characterise their attitudes to China. While it falls a long way down on our list of best friends (only 8% of Australians nominating China as our best friend), we continue to see the relationship as vitally important. China and the United States remain on level pegging when we ask which relationship is more important to Australia: in a statistical tie, 45% say the United States and 43% say China. And although almost half (46%) of Australians believe China will become a military threat in the next 20 years (up seven points since 2015), most of them (79%) still see China as more of an economic partner than a military threat.

Perhaps because of that crucial economic relationship, few Australians favour direct confrontation with China. Only 34% of Australians support the use of Australian military forces ‘if China initiated a military conflict with one of its neighbours over disputed islands or territories’. Freedom of navigation operations are seen in a different light, however, with 68% in favour of Australia conducting ‘maritime operations designed to ensure freedom of navigation in the region’.

Australians are far more willing to use our military forces when a conflict is at our own doorstep, or to prevent genocide or combat the terrorist threat. Most (77%) Australians would approve the use of Australian military forces ‘to restore law and order in a Pacific nation’, and 81% are in favour of intervening ‘to provide humanitarian and military support' … ‘if there is another major crisis in the Pacific, such as happened in the Solomon Islands in 2003’. Three quarters (76%) favour the use of Australian military forces ‘to stop a government committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people’, and 61% ‘to fight against violent Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria’. We are divided (45% in favour, 48% against) on the use of Australian forces ‘if North Korea invaded South Korea’ and firmly against (31% in favour vs 62% against) military involvement ‘if Russia invaded one of its neighbours.’

After the events of 2016, it might have been expected that the forces of nationalism and protectionism which gained strength and influenced elections across the Western world would take hold in Australia. However, there is no evidence of this in the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll: 78% of Australians see globalisation as ‘mostly good for Australia’ – 14 points higher than in 2006.  More so than their American counterparts, a majority of Australians see free trade as good for the economy, jobs, our standard of living and Australian companies. Furthermore, optimism about the national economy has risen, with 74% of Australians (up four points since 2016) saying they are optimistic ‘about Australia’s economic performance in the world over the next five years’.

So while the events of the last year have unsettled Australians, they remain surprisingly positive about global engagement, perhaps because of the continued economic upside offered by China. They have adapted quickly to the new US administration, despite their dislike of Donald Trump. They may trust the United States less, but support for the US alliance remains firm.

Our traditional allies find themselves in turbulent times. But while Australians are clearly disturbed about recent events, the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll suggests that, for now at least, our historical predilection for pragmatism over panic is still strong.

Asia in the Age of Uncertainty

In the context of an increasingly demanding security environment in Asia, the Lowy Institute joined with five research partners in Asia Pacific in a six-nation 2016 multinational survey of public opinion in the Asia Pacific.



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