Commentary |
24 June 2020

Opinion piece on the 2020 Lowy Institute Poll in The Australian

Australians feel far more distrustful, pessimistic and less secure than they have in years. And our souring relations with China are central to our problems. Originally published in The Australian.

Happy to hop away from these bounders

The view from Australia today is sobering. Having barely emerged from the bushfire crisis, we were struck with a global pandemic and our borders remain closed to the world. Our great ally, the US, is still deep in the health crisis and preoccupied with domestic social discord. Our largest trading ­partner, China, is wielding its economic leverage over us and threatens to do more as we enter our first recession in 29 years.

Against this backdrop the 2020 Lowy Institute Poll, released on Wednesday, finds Australians feel far more distrustful, pessimistic and less secure than at any point in its 16-year history. Only half of Australians report feeling safe, a remarkable 28-point drop from 2018. And the same number feel optimistic about Australia’s economic performance in the next decade, the lowest level of economic optimism recorded in the poll.

Dismal views about Australia’s security and economic prospects are tinged by a sharp souring of relations with China. A decade ago, Australia’s China story was very different. We were bullish about the economic relationship, China’s prospects and its role in the world. But this years, diplomatic relations, already cool for some time, have entered a much frostier phase. China reacted to Australia’s call for an international inquiry into COVID-19 with tariffs on barley, bans on beef and a travel warning to its students.

Unsurprisingly, Australians are not feeling positive about the relationship. China’s trade reprisals have stoked fears of economic dependency, and almost all Australians want the economy to diversify: 94 per cent say we need to look for other markets. Less than a quarter of Australians trust China to act responsibly and 22 per cent express confidence in Xi Jinping in 2020 — both figures halving in the past two years to record lows. The reports out of Xinjiang and Hong Kong cannot have helped Australians’ views of China, with eight in 10 Australians supporting sanctions on Chinese officials associ­ated with human rights abuses.

Australians might be expected to take comfort in our long-time security alliance with the US. Yet anxiety about China has hardly translated into a closer embrace of our ally. While support for the alliance remains high, only a bare majority (51 per cent) trusts the US to act responsibly —– almost a third lower than in 2009. A mere one in three Australians has confidence in Donald Trump to do the right thing in world affairs.

Australians’ concern about the climate may have been overtaken by the pandemic and its economic consequences. While 59 per cent of Australians say climate change is a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, 76 per cent say the same of COVID-19. Seven in 10 Australians see a downturn in the global economy as a critical threat, a 20-point jump from last year.

With these challenges, many would expect Australians to turn inward. But we remain largely positive about globalisation and free trade. And despite the furious debate, 52 per cent say our number of international students is about right.

In this harsh new world, where the gloss has worn off our ally and our major trading partner, Australia may look to nurture other friendships. We have accepted the US offer to attend this year’s G7 meeting and Britain has proposed a new “10 democracies” grouping, bringing in Australia, India and South Korea. Of those democracies, Australians have a high degree of confidence in Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and even, on balance, Britain’s sometimes mercurial leader, Boris Johnson. Australians are less trusting of India than in the past, though. But if sentiments towards New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are a guide, Australians would likely embrace a Pacific bubble, expressing almost universal confidence in Ardern to do the right thing in the world. The same cannot be said about Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, as Australians’ confidence in him slides and trust in Indonesia declines. Most Australians disagree that ­Indonesia is a democracy.

This has been a difficult year, but Australians are still open to the world. The sentiments we express this year suggest we look to countries we trust, led by leaders we are confident will do the right thing, to work on issues that are important to Australia, as we square up to an uncertain future.

Alex Oliver is director of research at the Lowy Institute. Natasha Kassam is a research fellow in the diplomacy and public opinion program.