Commentary | 20 June 2018

Terrorism trumps China, US fears for Australians

Originally published in The Australian on 20 June 2018.

Originally published in The Australian on 20 June 2018.

Australian attitudes to China, as tracked across the 14 years of the annual Lowy Institute Poll, are complicated. On the one hand, Australians warmly embrace the opportunities China presents as the economic powerhouse in our region. On the other hand, China’s sheer size and growing assertiveness seems to threaten Australians.

During the past year, the China debate has morphed into something new. Revelations about the actions of wealthy Chinese-Australian donors have turned the spotlight on to the question of influences on our politics. Yet while experts increasingly are concerned about preserving the integrity of our public life, Australians are more sanguine about the threat of foreign influence.

This year’s Lowy Institute Poll reveals that only 41 per cent of the adult population sees “foreign interference in Australian politics” as a critical threat to Australia’s interests. The public debate may have focused on China but Australians are less concerned. Only marginally more Australians (63 per cent) expressed concern about China’s influence on Australia’s political processes than about the influence of Australia’s principal security ally, the US (58 per cent).

According to Lowy polling, there are threats of much greater concern: two-thirds of the population (66 per cent) see terrorism as a critical threat, and almost all of those say this is because “terrorists could kill innocent Australian citizens in our cities”. Incidents such as the 2014 Martin Place siege may have shaken Australians; feelings of safety have been at their lowest level in 14 years.

Australians perceive North Korea’s nuclear program as a threat equal to terrorism. Climate change is ranked third alongside cyber attacks, and the prospect of a global economic downturn is close behind. Only 42 per cent of us see “the dissemination of false information and fake news” as a critical threat. Similar numbers were concerned about the presidency of Donald Trump. The flow of immigrants and refugees into Australia, China’s growing power, and US foreign policies were the lowest order threats.

While US foreign policy may not be viewed as particularly dangerous, America’s stocks in Australia have fallen significantly. A bare majority of Australians (55 per cent) trust the US to “act responsibly in the world”. This represents a six-point fall since last year, a 28-point fall since 2011 and the lowest level of trust in the US recorded by us. It is lower than trust in India (59 per cent) and at a similar level to trust in China (52 per cent). Among the eight nations we asked about this year, the US is ahead of only Russia and North Korea.

Trump seems to be a big factor in that declining trust. Only 30 per cent of us have “a lot” or “some” confidence in Trump “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”. This places Trump ahead of only Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un among the nine leaders polled, and well behind Britain’s Theresa May (in whom 68 per cent have confidence), Japan’s Shinzo Abe (66 per cent) and Malcolm Turnbull (63 per cent). Almost half of all women (49 per cent) have “no confidence at all” in Trump.

Despite these low levels of trust and confidence in the US and its leader, Australians’ support for the US alliance remains firm. More than three-quarters (76 per cent) of Australians say the alliance is very or fairly important for Australia’s security, almost unchanged since last year.

Other attitudes have changed, however. While Australians do not seem particularly worried by foreign interference in our politics, there is a sharp rise in concern about Chinese investment. Almost three-quarters (72 per cent, up from 56 per cent in 2014) say the Australian government “is allowing too much investment from China”. Australians remain wary about China’s military intentions as well, with 46 per cent believing it is likely that China will become a military threat to Australia “in the next 20 years”.

Attitudes to immigration are also shifting in tandem with our public debate. For the first time in our polling, a majority of Australians (54 per cent) say the total number of migrants coming to Australia each year is too high. Only 14 per cent believe it is too low. The population also is divided on the impact of immigration on our national identity: 54 per cent say “Australia’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation”, while 41 per cent say “if Australia is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation”.

Climate change increasingly is on Australians’ minds. This year, 59 per cent (up five points on last year) say “global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.” Furthermore, we appear unconvinced of the case for coal. A large majority of respondents (84 per cent) say the government should focus on renewables “even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”. Just 14 per cent want the government to focus on traditional energy sources such as coal and gas.