Tuesday 22 Jun 2021 | 01:33 | 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

Data retention scheme has majority support from Australians

New Lowy Institute polling released today shows that the Australian Government's data retention ('metadata') laws, which passed the parliament last night, have the support of a clear majority of Australians.

When asked whether 'legislation which will require Australian telecommunications companies to retain data about communications such as phone calls, emails and internet usage, but not their content' is justified, 63% of the adult population say it is 'justified as part of the effort to combat terrorism and protect national security'. Only one-third (33%) say it 'goes too far in violating citizens' privacy and is therefore not justified.'

Younger Australians (18-29) are more likely to say the legislation is not justified (47%), but this age group is divided about the policy, with 50% saying it is justified. 

'Australians appear to accept some infringements on their privacy in the interests of fighting terrorism and protecting national security,' said Lowy Institute Executive Director Dr Michael Fullilove today. 'This result is consistent with 2013 Lowy Institute polling which found that most Australians believed the government had struck about the right balance between protecting the rights of citizens and fighting terrorism.'  

This result is drawn from the forthcoming 2015 Lowy Institute Poll, the full version of which will be released in June 2015. The Lowy Institute Poll is based on a nationally representative telephone survey of 1200 Australian adults between 20 February and 8 March 2015. The Poll's error margin is approximately -/- 2.8%.  For more information see Lowy Institute press release. 

Australians shifting on climate change

A month ago my colleague John Connor wrote an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald welcoming the fact that for the first time in years, climate change was a major story coming out of the Lowy Institute's poll of public attitudes to international affairs. Expectation for leadership on the issue was up, and a majority of Australians thought we should act on climate rather than wait for international consensus.

The Climate Institute's own comprehensive annual public opinion poll, released just last week, found similar views, buttressed by a number of additional questions around international action. 

Percentage of Australians who want their nation to be a leader in climate solutions, based on Climate of the Nation research.

In our poll, 56% of respondents felt the federal government has the most responsibility to take a leading role in addressing climate change, followed by global organisations such as the UN (43%). Just 8% think the federal government should take no action on climate change. Yet views on the Government's performance are significantly lower than a year ago, at net differential of -18, from -1 in 2013.

Like the Lowy poll, we also found that a growing number of Australians want the nation to lead on finding solutions to climate change.

A total of 61% hold this view this year, the highest result since 2008 (see graph). Women and younger Australians are the most ambitious. Some 64% of women want Australia to be a leader compared to 58% of men, and 64% of Australians under 55 years of age want leadership, compared to 56% of older people. 

Views are not just growing stronger on leadership and responsibility, but also on policies and political parties. A majority (57%) think the Abbott Government should take climate change more seriously. Ambition again is strongest among women and Australians under 55, both at 61%. 

Deep cynicism permeates the views towards both political parties on their approach to climate change. Only 19% of Australians agree that the Coalition has an effective plan to tackle climate change. A slightly higher 26% agree Labor has an effective plan. These results are unchanged from 2013.  The 'Direct Action' badge does not shift the views of many Australians about the Government's plans on climate change, with only 22% agreeing that the 'Direct Action' policy is credible.

What these views tell us is that no politician is off the hook for addressing climate change, whichever end of the spectrum they represent. Beyond the domestic political impacts of attempts to remove the carbon price and calls for the weakening of the Renewable Energy Target, international processes will also come into play (the Climate Change Authority has just released a paper on key priorities and processes of the international framework to 2020).

Countries ranging from the US, China, Brazil, the EU nations, Mexico and New Zealand are initiating processes to define new emission reduction contributions. Like the recent announcements by President Obama (that his Administration will regulate major emission sources such as power stations and vehicles) when these new and stronger emission targets are announced over the next 12 months it will permeate the Australian debate.

Some in Australia's body politic would like to think that climate change will go away with the axing of carbon tax, but the storm brewing from public expectation and international action will be too strong to leave our political representatives unscathed. 

Young Australians talk about the value of democracy

Since Fergus Hanson first polled Australians on the value of democracy in the 2012 Lowy Institute Poll, our findings about how Australians, particularly young Australians, view democracy have variously provoked astonishment, bewilderment, disbelief, worry and frustration. Our 2014 Poll, released early in June, sought to understand better the thoughts of young Australians by adding 150 more 18-29 year olds to our usual polling sample, making a total of 364 of that age group in our overall sample of 1150 Australians of voting age this year. The larger sample makes the error margin even smaller than in our previous polls (down to 2.9% on the overall sample and 5.1% on the sample of 18-29 year olds).

The larger sample confirmed what we found in our earlier polls: the majority of young Australians either don't think democracy matters or think some other system might in some circumstances work better.

Less than  half (42% actually) of 18-29 year olds say that 'democracy is preferable to any other kind of government'. Thirty-three percent say 'in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable', and nearly one in five (19%) say that 'for someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have'. 7% say they don't know when presented with these three options about their views on democracy.

On learning about our polling on democracy and young people, the Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, the Hon Fiona Simpson, convened some groups of young Australians to talk about 'Why democracy matters' at Queensland Parliament earlier this year. These two short videos (one above and one below; each about 3 minutes long) offer a pretty compelling insight into how these articulate and thoughtful young people think about democracy. One young woman put it this way:

I think we take democracy for granted. I don't think that we actually know what a world without democracy would look like.

If you're interested in why we continue to get these low results from young people about the value they place on democracy, then watch these clips. They're beautifully produced pieces featuring young Australian leaders eloquently expressing their ideas about democracy, our political system, and what matters to them.  The Speaker summed it up like this:

There's a difference between having a voice and actually making a difference, and that's why I think we need to learn from those who already at a young age have discovered the difference and who also hold the keys for how we can make democratic processes more open to people.

Can women lead? Australians think so

Comments by Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard this week have invigorated the debate on women and leadership. Clinton's recently released book Hard Choices made news in Australia for the condemnation of the 'outrageous sexism' experienced by Gillard. In response, the former Australian prime minister identified continuing negative attitudes towards women as leaders: 'For men, that conversation starts with what kind of leader will he be, you know, strong, weak, compassionate, strident. I think for women, it starts with, can she lead? And it's a subtle but significant difference'. 

In this light, it is interesting to look at the public's views on male and female leaders in international relations, as revealed in the Lowy Institute's 2014 Poll. Those polled this year were offered for the first time a list of 10 leaders, six male and four female, and were asked who they most admired.

The headline results were promising, with three women in the top five admired leaders. However, there are some caveats around this. Because the question gave a list of choices, it doesn't give a sense of what the unprompted response would be. And the public doesn't seem to have much sense of some of the leaders, with 64% holding no view on Chinese President Xi Jinping. Views on Abbott and Shorten probably just reflect party voting patterns.

More revealing is the response to the question that posed an intriguing thought experiment: what would the world be like if there were more female leaders? Would it be better? Worse? Much the same?

There are arguments for each position.

Those who oppose women in public life are implicitly arguing that having them there would make the world a worse place. For a revealing example of this thinking in international relations look no further than Francis Fukuyama. He is on record as saying:

A world run by women would follow different rules, it would appear, and it is toward that sort of world that all postindustrial or Western societies are moving. As women gain power in (Western) countries, the latter should become less aggressive, adventurous, competitive, and violent.

This thinking has not yet been entirely dismissed from Australian life: there are still some who believe that women are wrecking the joint. However, the poll showed this to be a minority position, with only 7% thinking that more female leaders would make things worse.

The opposite argument is that women will improve international leadership, either because of their innate qualities or because of their life experience.

One of the perennial questions in the movement to increase the opportunities and space for women has been whether women deserve to be included because they are better than men or because they are the same. For the suffragette movement that sought votes for women, the tactical question was whether to argue that women should be able to vote because they are more moral (for example, they would promote better conduct in public life, would resist calls to send their sons to die in unnecessary wars, etc) or whether they should vote because they are just the same as men (that is, people that deserve the same rights). Some of the vitriol heaped on Gillard can be seen as a reaction to this sense that women in leadership positions should somehow be more moral and that they let us down if they show themselves to be politicians just as much as their male counterparts.

The poll results showed that most Australians were not convinced women should be placed on a leadership pedestal. Less than a third believed that the world would be more peaceful or more prosperous with more female leaders.

A third argument then assumes that women are on the whole no worse or better than men. Some female leaders may be informed by their experience as mothers; others won't. Some will be moral; others will not. The results suggest that most Australians agree with this position: 60% believe that having more female leaders would make no difference.

This suggests Australians may be working out that there is not one type of female leader, just as there is not one male type. The three women in the top five admired leaders (Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Aung Sang Suu Kyi) have very different backgrounds, style and focus.

This thinking should help women to be judged on their own merits and personal attributes rather than on their gender. Women should have the same opportunity to lead (badly or well) as their male counterparts. The world will benefit from adding their diversity, skills and life experience to the leadership talent pool.

Photo by the US Department of State.


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