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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).

 

Latest publications

How the Lowy Institute Poll works

In conjunction with the release of the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, Lowy Institute Poll Director Alex Oliver has recorded a podcast which explains the methodology used in the survey.

Alex speaks  with Sol Lebovic, who has provided independent advice and technical support to the Lowy Institute over the last six years. Sol is one of Australia's most distinguished pollsters, founding Newspoll in 1985 and directing it for more than two decades. Sol explains how the Lowy Institute Poll's sample size, sample selection and weighting methods provide a reliable and rigorous survey, representative of the views of the Australian public, with an error margin of approximately 3.1%. 

The full transcript of the podcast is available on the Lowy Institute website.

Foreign-investment anxiety revealed in Lowy Poll

I've just written on the widespread antipathy in Indonesia to foreign investment, and how it is colouring the presidential election campaign. I attributed this hostility to the historical experience of colonialism. Now the Lowy Institute's annual poll reminds us that a similar (if less pronounced) aversion also exists in Australia, without the excuse of centuries of foreign domination:

  • 60% of Australians oppose foreign investment in agriculture, ports and airports.
  • Smaller majorities oppose investment in Qantas (51%) and the National Broadband Network (52%).
  • Australians are divided on foreign investment in the resources sector (49% in favour, 48% against).

Will the foreigners do something harmful that Australian capitalists don't do? Do we gaze on green pastures filled with frolicking lambs and get a warm feeling from knowing they are owned by fellow Australians? Do we think foreign investment makes our economy more vulnerable to changes in foreign sentiment? Should we borrow more overseas rather than selling the farm (and the mine)?

The Lowy Poll doesn't shed much light on the deeper motivations behind the opinions. For better or for worse (probably the former), foreign investment policy is not determined by popular poll. But there are complex issues here, not least about whether the foreigners pay a fair share of the costs of running Australia; and whether a dominant investment position might possibly be translated into dominant influence on politics (in the way that the foreign-dominated mining sector managed to persuade the political system that the miners shouldn't pay a resource-rent tax).

What the Lowy Poll reminds us is that there has not been enough public debate to achieve the sort of support that should accompany these important policy choices.

Photo by Flickr user sofakingevil.

Lowy Institute Poll 2014

2014 marks the tenth year of Lowy Institute polling on Australia and the world. The 2014 Lowy Institute Poll includes a mix of fascinating new questions on issues such as who is Australia’s best friend in Asia and Canberra’s espionage practices, along with many of our established questions tracking trends over time including Australians’ views on democracy. The 2014 Poll alsoinvestigates concern about climate change, the role Government should play in reducing carbon emissions, attitudes to asylum seeker policy, and seeks Australians’ views on key countries such as the United States, China and Indonesia.


As the leading tracking survey on Australian foreign policy, the Lowy Institute Poll provides an independent, rigorous, reliable basis for understanding Australians’ attitudes to the world.  Fieldwork for the Poll was conducted between 12 and 27 February 2014.

To view and compare 10 years of data from the Poll, the LOWY INSTITUTE POLL INTERACTIVE tool is accessible by clicking here.

 

First look at the Budget: DFAT, aid and defence

So here I am at the budget lockup, deep in the bowels of Treasury, with the idea of getting a much-anticipated preview of the Foreign Affairs and Trade budget for this, the Coalition Government's first federal budget. Only, there is no Portfolio Budget Statement for the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio. It hasn't arrived (it's on its way; according to the budget official on duty, there was a last-minute hitch. These things happen, she says).

So to give you an overview of the foreign affairs and trade budget, there are just the overall budget papers themselves, which give a high-level summary.  Here are the highlights:

  • The aid budget has been dramatically shaved. We knew this was coming, and there will be more on this later in the week from development experts, but the top line is that Government will save $7.6 billion over five years 'by maintaining official development assistance (ODA) at its nominal 2013-14 level of $5.0 billion in each of 2014-15 and 2015-16'. From then, it will be pegged to CPI, as foreshadowed by the Minister early this year. This will cut particularly deeply in 2017-18, where the savings will amount to more than $3.5 billion. These are deeper cuts than previously  thought.
  • As expected, the Australia Network, Australia's international broadcasting service to the region, has been axed, saving $196.8 million (or around $22-23 million a year for the remainder of the contract made by the previous government). There goes a significant contributor to Australia's voice to the region, leaving Radio Australia to struggle on manfully, shouldering the burden of providing a broadcasting service and source of independent news in a region severely starved of it (and that means the Pacific, including some of the world's most impoverished nations, and not just the Chinese cash-box to our north). It is not, according to the Government, a 'cost effective vehicle for advancing Australia's broad and enduring interests in the Indo-Pacific region'. It remains to be seen what the Government thinks will replace it as a vehicle for Australia's soft power, for engaging with the diverse populations in our region and building enduring relationships.
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be subjected to even further efficiency demands. Having endured over 20 years the euphemistically-named efficiency 'dividends', there will be further savings of $397 million over four years, flowing from the absorption of AusAID into DFAT and finding more efficiencies, including in the administration of Australian aid. 
  • The Australian embassy in Baghdad will be co-located with the British Embassy (presumably delivering considerable savings, though the overall commitment to Iraq is $35.6 million in this budget).
  • There are some sundry small measures for tourism and Australia Week in China, amounting to around $12 million.
  • On the plus side, there is a $748 million replenishment of the World Bank's International Development Association (IDA), which provides interest-free credit and grants for programs that boost economic growth and alleviate poverty. Some of it is a loan component (and so has no impact on the fiscal balance). 

Because of the AusAID integration into DFAT and the addition of tourism and climate change functions and responsibilities, it's hard to divine the exact impact of this budget on departmental fortunes. In terms of the cost of running the department (taking out the big-ticket administered expenses such as aid and the Australia Network), before the merger the combined appropriations from government for both organisations was around $1.34 billion.  

This year, the amount is around the same. What the budget papers don't state, though, are the measures already introduced in December's mid-year economic forecasts, which saw commitments to the Foreign Minister's signature 'New Colombo Plan' ($100 million over five years) and the scrapping of the proposed new post in Senegal. What is stated in the budget papers is the overall staff reduction for DFAT, which amounts to a substantial 550 positions, presumably across both the foreign affairs and aid functions. It is hard to imagine the impact of a 10% staff reduction on a department so recently disrupted by a major merger and which has made only tentative steps towards rebuilding itself after decades of under-resourcing and bipartisan inattention

Now to defence. Once again, this is one for the experts later this week, but here's a brief preview:

  • The Treasurer has consolidated the commitment foreshadowed by the Defence Minister last year to lift defence spending to the 'magic' 2% of GDP 'within a decade.' Last year it was 1.6%. This year's appropriation of $26.8 billion is a 5% increase on 2013-14, around the same proportion (1.64%) of GDP and 6.5% of general government expenditure. Over the forward estimates, this will lift to $32.6 billion and around 6.8% of government expenditure. The Minister's press release commits the government to 'lay down a credible path to achieving our target following completion of the 2015 (Defence) White Paper.'
  • $191.8 million has been committed over four years to 're-establish the Australian Defence Force Gap Year Programme', delivering on a Government election commitment.
  • Defence Materiel has not been re-integrated into Defence (contrary to the Audit Commission recommendation).
  • There is $1.4 billion over four years to improve the indexation of payments under the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Fund and super schemes. Again, delivering on the election promise. There will also be better CPI and tax treatment of benefits. New members of the defence forces will join a different super scheme, reducing the Government's super liability by $126 billion by 2050.
  • Finally, the Audit Commission's call for efficiency gains and defence bureaucracy reductions have been partially heeded for Defence: $1.2 billion over four years in efficiency gains, to be reinvested in Defence capability and so with no impact on overall funding. There will be cuts of 1200 public service positions and some changes to living allowances and benefits. This is nothing like the return to Canberra staffing levels of 1998 sought by the Audit Commission, but cuts nonetheless.

The Treasurer's budget speech outlines many of the budget and agency cuts which have been discussed in the last few weeks. Seventy government bodies are to be axed and the public service will be cut by 16,500 positions, as already announced. However, while the Audit Commission recommended abolishing Austrade and EFIC, this is not in the budget. Austrade lives another day, having absorbed responsibility for tourism in October 2013. EFIC will be given $200 million in capital for export assistance to small and medium-sized businesses.

For DFAT, this is a difficult and probably disappointing budget. The argument that Australia's diplomatic service has been chronically under-resourced for several decades has now reached a level of received wisdom. It has been cited by the previous prime minister, the Asian Century White Paper, the former DFAT secretary Dennis Richardson, the current foreign minister, and has been integrated into her party's formal foreign policy, which noted concerns about 'Australia's relatively low diplomatic presence around the world' and promised to review diplomatic resources and put 'in place a long-term policy to ensure Australia's global diplomatic network is consistent with our interests.'

It might have been too much to expect of the new foreign minister to deliver this year on her 'plan to expand our diplomatic footprint overseas' in this austere, deficit-reducing, bottom-line repairing budget. 

However, Australia urgently needs a diplomatic service and an overseas network to meet the demands of an international environment which is undergoing rapid and profound transformations. Our international engagement increasingly fuels our prosperity: exports account for around one fifth of our GDP, one in five jobs is trade-related, Australian investment abroad has reached around $1.3 trillion, foreign investment has doubled over the five years to 2012 to more than $US231 billion, and the Australian dollar was the world's 5th most traded currency last year.

This is a government which has committed (as the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministers reiterate in their budget release today) to 'strengthen our relationships with key partners and refocus foreign policy on the advancement of Australia's core strategic and economic interests'. It came to government with a promise to refocus Australia's diplomacy on economic diplomacy.   

To do this, Australia's foreign affairs capability and its overseas network need to grow so it can deliver on the Government's ambitious promises, and follow up on its important initiatives in deepening engagement with our neighbours and trading partners. But with just 95 embassies and consulates in 77 nations to service Australia's needs spanning 200-plus nations of the world — far short of the OECD average of around 130 posts — DFAT, as currently resourced, will struggle with the task. It has only one post in booming inland China. It has no post in eastern Indonesia, the location of Indonesia's second largest city. It is under-represented in Africa and Central Asia despite our significant investment interests there and abundant mining opportunities. Add to that the massive consular drain on the Department from the ever-increasing numbers of Australians travelling overseas every year, and the urgency for rebuilding the overseas network becomes even clearer.

Politicians on both sides of Parliament have acknowledged this 'diplomatic deficit' since we first coined the term in 2009.  After five years of talk, it's time to start addressing it.

Senate Occasional Lecture: 'Are Australians disenchanted with democracy?' by Alex Oliver

On 7 March 2014 at Parliament House in Canberra, Alex Oliver gave a Senate Occasional Lecture on Australian attitudes to democracy. A series of Lowy Institute Polls conducted in Australia and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region have uncovered a striking ambivalence about the ideal of democracy as the most preferable form of government. Alex examines these findings in the context of various studies both in Australia and other parts of the world, and attempts to draw some conclusions about the reasons for this trend, and what it may mean for Australia. 

We see China and U.S. as central to our future

In an opinion piece in The Australian newspaper, Michael Fullilove and Alex Oliver describe Australians’ complex attitudes towards important foreign policy issues, and in particular, Australia’s relations with its two most important partners: China as its most important economic partner, and the United States as its longstanding ally. These attitudes were uncovered in the new Lowy Institute Poll 2013, together with findings on a large range of international issues of importance to Australians.

The Lowy Institute Poll 2013

The ninth annual Lowy Institute Poll reports the results of a nationally representative survey of 1,002 Australian adults conducted by mobile and fixed-line telephone in Australia between 4 and 20 March 2013.

The 2013 Poll rated the major political parties on a range of key foreign policy issues in the lead-up to the 2013 election. Other signficant issues covered in the Poll include: the comparative importance of China and the United States to Australia; support for the US alliance and US bases; attitudes towards China, the economy, boat arrivals and offshore processing; support for action on climate change, and views on the Afghanistan war, WikiLeaks and terrorism.

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