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2017 Lowy Institute Poll: Australians say global engagement and US alliance are safe – for now

The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll finds Australians have reacted to global events in a typically pragmatic way. But they are troubled about the direction of the world and divided about the way our own nation is travelling.

2017 Lowy Institute Poll: Australians say global engagement and US alliance are safe – for now

This time last year, we labelled 2016 a year of polls; the Australian election, the Brexit vote, and the US presidential election dominated the news. It follows, then, that 2017 is a year for assessing the impact of the previous turbulent 12 months.

The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, finds that Australians have reacted to global events in a typically pragmatic way. But they are troubled about the direction of the world and divided about the way our own nation is travelling.

When asked their views on ‘the way things are going in the world today’, 79% of Australians respond that they are ‘dissatisfied’. And our feeling of safety – though still strong – remains at its lowest point in our 13 years of polling. While nearly four in five feel safe overall, only 20% say they feel ‘very safe’, down four points since last year and a significant 24 points since 2009.

International terrorism (68%) and North Korea’s nuclear program (65%) top the list of ‘critical’ threats to Australia’s vital interests. Climate change ranks third (57% say it’s a critical threat, up 11 points since 2014), along with cyberattacks from other countries (55%), and ahead of a ‘severe downturn in the global economy’ (53%), ‘the presidency of Donald Trump’ (42%), foreign investment (40%), and asylum seeker arrivals (38%).

In line with this rising perception of the threat of climate change, 54% of Australians see global warming as ‘a serious and pressing problem [and] we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs’ (up 18 points since 2012). And even in the midst of a fierce debate on energy security, almost all Australians (81%) prioritise government investment in renewables over traditional energy sources such as coal and gas ‘even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable’. Only 17% say ‘the government should focus on traditional energy sources such as coal and gas’. 

Nearly eight in ten (79%) of Australians see ‘the presidency of Donald Trump’ as a critical or important threat to Australia’s vital interests. The strong implication from the 2016 Poll was that Australians might recoil from the US alliance under a Trump presidency. At the time, nearly half the country (45%) said that ‘Australia should distance itself from the United States if it elects a president like Donald Trump’.

So far, however, the presidency of Donald Trump has not dented Australians’ support for the US alliance. In fact, support for the alliance has rebounded six points since last year with 77% saying the alliance is ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ important for Australia’s security. Only 29% now say ‘Australia should distance itself from the United States under President Donald Trump’ (16 points lower than the response to the corresponding question last year). Australians appear to have adjusted quickly to the reality of the Trump administration.

However, Donald Trump was unpopular here before the election and remains unpopular now. Six in ten Australians say Donald Trump causes them to have an unfavourable opinion of the United States. More strikingly, the number of Australians who trust the United States 'a great deal' to act as a responsible global power has halved since 2011. Only 20% of Australians now have a ‘great deal’ of trust in the United States to ‘act responsibly in the world’. The 61% of Australians who trust the United States overall (‘a great deal’ and ‘somewhat’) compares starkly with the 86% who trust Germany and Japan and the 90% who trust the United Kingdom (even after the Brexit vote in 2016, which only 19% of Australians supported).

While support for the US alliance remains strong, the friendship between the two nations is being stretched under the new US administration. When Australians are asked who is their ‘best friend’ in the world, the United States has halved its support since 2014, dropping to second place alongside the United Kingdom (17% nominating each as Australia’s best friend). New Zealand is the clear favourite, with 53% (up 21 points since 2014) nominating it as Australia’s best friend of six countries polled. A gulf has opened up between New Zealand and the rest.

Australians’ pragmatism continues to characterise their attitudes to China. While it falls a long way down on our list of best friends (only 8% of Australians nominating China as our best friend), we continue to see the relationship as vitally important. China and the United States remain on level pegging when we ask which relationship is more important to Australia: in a statistical tie, 45% say the United States and 43% say China. And although almost half (46%) of Australians believe China will become a military threat in the next 20 years (up seven points since 2015), most of them (79%) still see China as more of an economic partner than a military threat.

Perhaps because of that crucial economic relationship, few Australians favour direct confrontation with China. Only 34% of Australians support the use of Australian military forces ‘if China initiated a military conflict with one of its neighbours over disputed islands or territories’. Freedom of navigation operations are seen in a different light, however, with 68% in favour of Australia conducting ‘maritime operations designed to ensure freedom of navigation in the region’.

Australians are far more willing to use our military forces when a conflict is at our own doorstep, or to prevent genocide or combat the terrorist threat. Most (77%) Australians would approve the use of Australian military forces ‘to restore law and order in a Pacific nation’, and 81% are in favour of intervening ‘to provide humanitarian and military support' … ‘if there is another major crisis in the Pacific, such as happened in the Solomon Islands in 2003’. Three quarters (76%) favour the use of Australian military forces ‘to stop a government committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people’, and 61% ‘to fight against violent Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria’. We are divided (45% in favour, 48% against) on the use of Australian forces ‘if North Korea invaded South Korea’ and firmly against (31% in favour vs 62% against) military involvement ‘if Russia invaded one of its neighbours.’

After the events of 2016, it might have been expected that the forces of nationalism and protectionism which gained strength and influenced elections across the Western world would take hold in Australia. However, there is no evidence of this in the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll: 78% of Australians see globalisation as ‘mostly good for Australia’ – 14 points higher than in 2006.  More so than their American counterparts, a majority of Australians see free trade as good for the economy, jobs, our standard of living and Australian companies. Furthermore, optimism about the national economy has risen, with 74% of Australians (up four points since 2016) saying they are optimistic ‘about Australia’s economic performance in the world over the next five years’.

So while the events of the last year have unsettled Australians, they remain surprisingly positive about global engagement, perhaps because of the continued economic upside offered by China. They have adapted quickly to the new US administration, despite their dislike of Donald Trump. They may trust the United States less, but support for the US alliance remains firm.

Our traditional allies find themselves in turbulent times. But while Australians are clearly disturbed about recent events, the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll suggests that, for now at least, our historical predilection for pragmatism over panic is still strong.

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