Commentary | 21 June 2016

Poll finds Abbott considered ‘weakest PM on foreign policy’

This article was originally published in The Australian.

  • Michael Fullilove
  • Alex Oliver

This article was originally published in The Australian.

  • Michael Fullilove
  • Alex Oliver

Executive Summary

When Australians go to the polls on July 2, they will choose between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten as the next prime minister. Hovering in the background, however, is another PM — Tony ­Abbott. The foreign policies of Turnbull and Abbott have differed markedly in tone. It turns out that Turnbull is rated strongly by Australians, while Abbott is judged to be the weakest on foreign policy of the seven living prime ministers.

Every year the Lowy Institute Poll puts a series of questions to voting-aged Australians to ascertain their views on the most ­important international issues of the day. This year’s poll, released today, contains striking results on Australians’ attitudes to the US and China, as well as intriguing findings on the foreign policy records of our prime ministers.

This year we asked about the foreign policy performance of the seven living Australian prime ministers, including the incumbent Turnbull.

John Howard is the clear leader when Australians consider the ­record of the past seven prime ministers in their handling of foreign policy. Almost all (82 per cent) Australians say Howard did either a “very good” or “reasonable” job in handling Australia’s foreign policy. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull all do well, with Julia Gillard trailing slightly. However, only 46 per cent of voting-aged Australians say the same about Abbott, the least successful of all living prime ministers on this measure.

We also asked about whether former prime minister Rudd would make a good secretary-general of the United Nations. Australians are in two minds on this question: 49 per cent say he would not be a good secretary-general, while 46 per cent say he would.

The transition between Abbott and Turnbull, which gave us our fifth prime minister in five years, probably contributed to another of the poll’s intriguing findings.

Australians seem entirely dispirited by their politics. In fact, when asked about the important issues facing the country, 65 per cent of the population rate “dysfunction in Australian politics” as “very important” — which puts it around the same level as terrorism and national security (68 per cent). Refugees and asylum-seekers, ­immigration, climate change and China’s rise are of significantly lower priority in Australians’ eyes.

We also asked — as we did in the past federal election year in 2013 — which of our major parties would do a better job this year of handling foreign policy.

On seven of eight key foreign policy issues, the Coalition has a clear lead over Labor — from national security, the US alliance and relations with China, to the economy, foreign ­investment, and asylum-seekers. The only issue on which Labor leads is on managing climate change.

This year we find more evidence that Australians’ views of our two most important partners — the US, our great ally, and China, our leading trading partner — are shifting. When asked two years ago which relationship was more important, 48 per cent of Australians said the US and 37 per cent said China. This year, it’s a dead heat: each gets 43 per cent of the vote.

Furthermore, attitudes to the ANZUS alliance, which has stood at the centre of Australia’s security since 1951, seem to be moving, perhaps in response to the weirdness of the 2016 presidential race. This year support for the alliance is down nine points to its lowest level since 2007, with 71 per cent saying the alliance is “very” or “fairly” ­important to Australia’s security.

When we insert the prospect of a President Donald Trump into the equation, almost half of Australians say “Australia should distance itself from the United States if it elects a president like Donald Trump”. In further polling we conducted this month, 77 per cent of respondents said they would prefer Hillary Clinton as president, with only 11 per cent saying they would prefer Trump. In the same poll, nearly six in 10 Australians (59 per cent) say they would be less likely to support Australia “taking future military action in coalition with the US under Donald Trump” if he wins the presidency — a result which should prompt concern in Washington.

Finally, on this year’s Lowy ­Institute thermometer of feelings towards other countries, the US is the only country towards which feelings cooled significantly this year, with Australians’ warmth ­towards it dropping five points to 68 per cent.

Australians remain conflicted about China. We respond warmly to the Chinese people and to China’s culture, history and ­impressive economic development: 85 per cent of Australians, for example, say “Chinese people [they] have met” are a positive influence on their views of China, and 79 per cent say China’s culture and history are a positive influence. But this warmth is tinged with apprehension: “China’s military activities in our region” are a negative influence for 79 per cent, and 86 per cent see China’s human rights record as a negative.

It ­appears most Australians see much to admire about China but are genuinely alarmed at its ­increasing military assertiveness. In fact, a remarkable 74 per cent are in favour of Australia conducting maritime operations in the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation in the ­region — a development that would be strongly opposed by Beijing.

The poll reveals Australians are concerned about their own politics, anxious about US politics, and undecided about China. That’s quite enough international work for the next government in Canberra to be going on with.