Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Cyber threats go beyond hackers and scams but to democracy itself

The digital tools for the manipulation of society have already been created (Photo: Paul Brennan/needpix)
The digital tools for the manipulation of society have already been created (Photo: Paul Brennan/needpix)
Published 23 Jul 2019 13:00    0 Comments

The 2019 Lowy Poll found that 62% of Australians rank cyberattacks as a threat to Australia’s vital interests. This leaves cyberattacks second only to climate change as the threat Australians are most concerned about.

It is interesting to note that the poll question focused solely on cyberattacks from other countries. It did not include cyberattacks from non-state actors, nor the expanding suite of broader concerns about the digital age. If Australians are this concerned solely about cyberattacks, how concerned are they about cybersecurity in the broadest sense of the word?

We do know that Australians are concerned about the role of foreign companies in supplying new technology. The Lowy Poll also revealed that in this space there is greater concern about preventing intrusion by foreign states than acquiring the most sophisticated technology or the cheapest access to that technology.

From other sources, we also know that Australians are concerned about privacy. A 2017 report found that 69% of Australians were more concerned about online privacy than they had been five years previously. A 2019 survey found that, while the most significant threat to online privacy was seen to be hackers and cyber criminals (39.2%), in next place is Australian government surveillance (30.1%), followed closely by companies collecting and trafficking in data (26.9%).

It is safe to assume Australians concerns surrounding privacy, cybersecurity, their digital lives, and the protection of Australia’s vital interests goes well beyond cyberattacks conducted by other state actors. It is important to start thinking more about how Australians understand cybersecurity in the broadest sense of the word, from cyberattacks to social cybersecurity and what has been described as “surveillance capitalism”.

Much of the discussion surrounding threats of the information age are focused on digitally-enabled foreign influence and interference.

However, analysis of adversaries’ information campaigns as seen in the 2016 presidential elections and Brexit referendum doesn’t capture the full extent of the problem that is the manipulation society already created.

Tech giants haven’t just inadvertently created a new path for information warfare. Rather they have created the architecture for the persistent manipulation of whole societies – an architecture freely used by both adversaries and the tech corporations themselves. As trust has eroded in democratic societies, state and non-state entities alike have exploited the masses of surplus data to engineer people’s behaviour for strategic and financial gain.

Just as market capitalism led to a market society, surveillance capitalism has led to the manipulation society. However, while the market conditioned all aspects of social life, restricting but not abolishing human agency, monetising people’s personal information to predict and engineer future behavior under the regime of surveillance capitalism has begun to displace human agency altogether. Human are becoming participatory agents of exploitative and persuasive technologies.

That agency can be wrestled back. As noted elsewhere, too much the work of modern-day data-brokers and other entities operated largely outside the purview of regulatory bodies and under the radar of consumer awareness. So the first step is ensuring democratisation of the issues.

With each passing day, more is revealed about the extent of societal manipulation, with influence operations, societal exploitation, and asymmetrical threats clothed in both military and non-military garb.

With each passing day, more is revealed about the extent of societal manipulation, with influence operations, societal exploitation, and asymmetrical threats clothed in both military and non-military garb. A recent report by technology security firm Cyberreason demonstrated that despite privacy contracts, telecommunications companies are unable to secure most private information transmitted through their networks – including phone calls, location data and device information – against foreign hacking. The depth and scope of this vulnerability and the extent to which open society is exploitable is dawning on populations, corporations, and governments in something of a slowly accumulating crisis.

The rapid development of IT communications, AI, and immersive technologies such as VR, AR, 5G and their hyper-scaled uptake, require a full awareness of the personal and strategic implications and to set societal norms and rules in response.

As former US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich observed of the challenge to alliance partners Australia and the United States at the recent launch of the Jeff Bleich Centre in Adelaide, “our nations – both separately and together – must operate in new ways to preserve our values and protect our people and allies in new battle spaces”. In the US, Congress is debating the DASHBOARD Bill, DETOUR Act, and changes to anti-trust legislation, which shows a growing awareness of exploitative and monetised persuasion technologies and persuasion design.

Foreign interference is increasingly being exposed across the span of open democracies, able to piggy-back on much of the technological architecture that was allowed to be built around us. Understanding the social consequences of cybersecurity now needs to sit alongside cybersecurity in analysis, education, policy and lines of effort. In this, future research is essential to securing a truly democratic future.

Australia’s alliance with the US is defined by more than one President

Support for the alliance has remained even during the disruptive and at times divisive era of President Donald Trump (Photo: Alex Wroblewski via Getty)
Support for the alliance has remained even during the disruptive and at times divisive era of President Donald Trump (Photo: Alex Wroblewski via Getty)
Published 17 Jul 2019 15:00    0 Comments

Analysis of the Lowy Institute Poll of Australians’ international perspectives reveals a remarkable resilience in the level of support for Australia’s alliance with the United States. This year, 72% of Australians considered the alliance either “very” or “fairly” important for Australia’s security.

With this figure peaking at 87% shortly after then president Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Australia, following a low of 63% soon after George Bush’s 2007 Iraq War troop “surge”, the latest figure is back to exactly where it was 15 years ago. Only four per cent considered the alliance “not at all important”, and tellingly, negligible to no surveyed Australians didn’t have a view.

Over a period of rapid political, economic and social change globally, Australians’ supportive view of the alliance this century could be considered unwavering. Buoyant support for the alliance has remained even during the disruptive and at times divisive era of President Donald Trump.

As other polling figures show only 25% of Australians have “a lot” or “some” confidence in Trump, and two-thirds of Australians believe Trump has “weakened” the alliance, with the 72% figure not far below a 15-year medium of 77%.

This support for the pillar of Australia’s security and defence policy has enabled federal governments of both political persuasions to confidently and frankly engage our most important economic and security partner – across policy areas where our values and interests align, and on issues where they don’t.

So, what underpins Australia’s support for the alliance? And, what are the drivers behind Australians’ clear differentiation between their assessment of Trump and the importance of the alliance?

Transitioning from polling figures to a personal perspective, I see three key reasons. First, Australians are cognisant the alliance makes a significant contribution to the nation’s prosperity and security. Second, America’s system of democratic government and power sharing appeals to Australians own values and instincts about power and policymaking. Third, Australians understand the character of American policy is defined by more than any one president.

In providing context to these assertions, I had the privilege of recently participating in the US State Department’s longstanding exchange, the International Visitor Leadership Program. With 17 other foreign affairs professionals from around the world, we met with leaders, senior officials, business advocates and everyday Americans during a cross-country tour of Washington DC, New York, Lincoln Nebraska, and Seattle Washington. Two key findings have crystallised my views.

The US is a country of great diversity – not only in regard to the politics and background of its people, but by virtue of its diffused power arrangements.

First, the US is a country of great diversity ­– not only in regard to the politics and background of its people, but by virtue of its diffused power arrangements. At the federal level, the three branches of government exist separately and co-equally, constitutionally designed to check and balance each other. While the President may wish to prosecute a particular policy, it is only Congress who can appropriate money to make it happen.

Below the federal level, powerful state and local governments execute significant policy initiatives, which can and often do run counter to federal policy. For example, while the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the City of Seattle (home to Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft) is working towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

While the US democratic system may appear divisive and to some even dysfunctional, its institutional embrace of diversity undoubtedly affords its citizens the opportunity to engage the system and put their voice towards different policy outcomes at various levels across the country.

Second, the US system is resilient – evidenced not only by the nation’s constitutional longevity, but by the professional resilience and determination of its civil servants, business and union leaders to get on with the job of making their country a better place for their communities and the world.

Whether it be State Department or Pentagon officials, or on-the-rise Congressional staffers, America’s foreign policy servants are working to build relationships with allies and partners, to uphold a rules-based order and to create economic opportunities in a secure global environment. There was no indication of any institutional US instinct to play a reduced role in global affairs.

In international economic policy, there were clear signs the US is among the first movers in capturing opportunities. In the midwest agricultural state of Nebraska, the Governor is leading two-way trade delegations to the emerging major economies of Indonesia and Vietnam, well aware that building trade relationships with these rising countries will help the state ensure the continuation its export-reliant jobs and industries.

Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Australia saw a peak in support for the US alliance (Photo: Greg Wood via Getty)

For Australia, while the alliance is formally a security arrangement, for many (including myself) the alliance incorporates the breadth of Australia’s deep economic and social engagement with America. Not only are Americans and Australians embedded in each other’s intelligence and armed services, vast numbers of Australian and American companies invest and employ in vast numbers in each other’s country.

This interconnection is well recognised in the US, and has been a precondition for Australia’s successful modern era. While most recently affirmed by Trump and Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the G20 sidelines, this integrated alliance is broader than the personal relationship between any Australian and US leader, and more enduring than any single leader’s term.

In my mind, the diversity and resilience of the US is understood by and resonates with Australians. This carries through in lasting support for the Alliance, and in Australian policy to underpin it. In the Lowy poll, nearly three-quarters of Australians agreed the Alliance is a natural extension of shared ideals and common values. In a contemporary global climate indeed troubled by uncertainty and disrupted by change, Australians seeing the Alliance as an enduring characteristic of the nation’s foreign policy provides us with some stability.

Donald Trump and Scott Morrison following talks at the Osaka G20 summit (Photo: White House/Flickr) 

National security: Australians and their elites

The parade for a Ceremonial Sunset after training at HMAS Creswell (Photo: Defence Department)
The parade for a Ceremonial Sunset after training at HMAS Creswell (Photo: Defence Department)
Published 28 Jun 2019 10:00    0 Comments

It may be distasteful to some, but there is no escaping the need for political elites. The trick, particularly in a democracy, is for those elites to carry a sense of legitimacy.

Australians are disconnected from politics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they differ from politicians in their policy preferences.

On that front, Australia is struggling. Our politics is dominated by two big parties, yet the public doesn’t care about political parties at all (in 2006, only one per cent of Australians were members of a political party). Also, our politicians increasingly form a seperate tribe, a professional caste with diminishing connections to the people they are supposed to represent. In 2017, Fairfax reported that nearly half of all Liberal MPs in the federal parliament were former political staffers, party officials or government advisers. For Labor, the figure was 55%.

Yet that chasm doesn’t always show up in opinion polling. Australians are disconnected from politics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they differ from politicians in their policy preferences. Let’s take a quick tour through this year’s Lowy Institute Poll, and specifically the parts of it related to national security, to see where the public does and does not differ from their political leaders.

Defence spending

We spend just under two per cent of our GDP on defence now, and both major parties are committed to reaching two per cent by 2021. Almost half of Australians agree that number is about right. My guess is that a majority of commentators and academics who work on defence and national security would say two per cent is too low, and it seems a large minority of Australians (31%) agrees.

Threats to vital interests

For me, the most interesting result from this question was the fact that terrorism remains so high on the list of Australians’ security concerns. Among politicians and also our security and foreign-policy elites, I think it is fair to say China has long surpassed jihadist terrorism as a security concern.

Attitudes towards the United States

The public and their politicians are on the same side here – paeans of praise to the US alliance are boilerplate for politicians from both major parties, and the Lowy Poll has consistently showed that this reflects public preferences. Now, in a new question, it seems 73% of us believe the US would come to our defence if Australia was under threat. FWIW, I reckon that’s wishful thinking …

Attitudes towards China

Seems we’re a fairly forthright lot when it comes to resisting Chinese military activities in our region – 77% of us wants Australia to do more. Definitions of “region” and “more” are both open to interpretation, of course. If it is confined to the Pacific islands region, Australians no doubt approve of the government’s “step up” and its implicit reproach to China. If the region is defined more broadly to include, for instance, the South China Sea, then there are differences between our politicians and the public. Both major parties have chosen not to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea to protest Beijing’s land reclamation activities, but it seems 60% of Australians are in favour of doing so.

Feeling of safety

We really are the lucky country, aren’t we? If our security situation was similar to that of the average Iraqi or South Korean or Israeli do you think we would feel this safe? If you’re not sure you can trust this result, take a moment to scroll back up this page to look at the “Defence spending” subheading again. That’s actually a question about budget priorities, and it shows that Australians are overwhelmingly concerned with health and education rather than national security, another indication that we feel pretty safe.

Australian attitudes to China shift: 2019 Lowy Poll

China plays Australia in a Women’s FIH Field Hockey Pro League match on 2 June in Changzhou, China (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty)
China plays Australia in a Women’s FIH Field Hockey Pro League match on 2 June in Changzhou, China (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty)
Published 27 Jun 2019 14:00    0 Comments

Among many interesting findings in this year’s Lowy Institute Poll, one new question produced a particularly striking result given Australia’s debate over how to navigate the looming tech cold war between the US and China.

44% said “protecting Australians from foreign state intrusion” should be the government’s first priority when consdiering which foreign companies should be allowed to supply new technology for important services. 

This ranked well ahead of access to the most sophisticated technology (28%) and keeping prices down for Australian consumers (28%).

This suggests the government has public support for its August 2018 decision to ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE Networks from taking part in the construction of the national 5G network for national security reasons; and sits with the most startling finding of this year's survey: trust in China to act responsibly in the world dropped a huge 20 points to 32%.

Australia was an outlier in the 5G decision at the time, which remains deeply unpopular with the Chinese state, even while it disavows any direct connection with both companies. But since then, Australia’s move has been followed by New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan and most enthusiastically, the US, which has gone much further; even banning US companies including chipmakers and Google from dealing with Huawei at all.  

The UK, Germany and France have permitted selective involvement in 5G from Huawei under increased security measures; and it is still an open question in many other countries. China is likely to keep the pressure up as positions harden on both sides.

You couldn’t rule out xenophobic overreaction on our part, but the reputation of Chinese investment has also been indelibly tainted through its politicisation by the Chinese government.


The focus on national security priorities when it comes to new technology aligns with other results in the 2019 poll. Cyber attacks from other countries are seen as a critical threat by 62%, up 5 points from last year and the second highest result after climate change at 64%.  

And in 2019 more Australians are concerned about foreign interference in Australian politics. 49% say foreign interference in Australian politics is a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, up 8 points from last year. This significant shift in public concern follows last year’s new legislation designed to prevent foreign interference, which earned a frosty reception in Beijing.  

Chinese investment is on Australian’s minds too. The share of Australians who believe the government is allowing “too much” investment from China has steadily climbed from 50% a decade ago to 68% in 2019.

You couldn’t rule out xenophobic overreaction on our part, but the reputation of Chinese investment has also been indelibly tainted through its politicisation by the Chinese government. China has weaponised tourism against South Korea; buying power against Norway; and obliquely threatened Australia over the flows of Chinese students, coal and wine exports; all following the respective countries’ political decisions Beijing did not like. Politically neutral investment makes Belgium and Japan - Australia’s third and fourth largest sources of FDI, well ahead of China - uncontroversial.

These results match with a general souring on China in the poll, where China’s score on the annual feelings thermometer dropped 9 points to 49 degrees.

77% agree Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region even if this affects our economic relationship – a similar question in 2015 saw 66% agree.

74% say Australia is too economically dependent on China.

79% agree that China’s infrastructure investment projects are part of China’s plans for regional domination; just 44% characterise those projects across Asia as “good for the region”.

Only 27% say Australia is doing enough to pressure China to improve human rights, the lowest number since the question was first asked in 2008.

It all suggests a newly assertive, increasingly autocratic China will have an uphill battle in convincing foreign publics of its goodwill, even ones like Australia that have been generally warm to China, viewing it as a key economic partner. Over the past 15 years of Lowy polling, China’s economy, culture and people have generally beeen viewed positively and China has been viewed warmly (around 58 on the poll’s feelings thermometer for years); but its system of government and human rights record have always deeply troubled Australians. 

But it’s clear the economic gravitational force of China still exerts huge sway. When it comes to picking sides, the much-debated “China choice” that everyone would prefer we never have to make, between the US and China; Australians remain deeply divided.

50% said we should maintain strong relations with the US even if it might harm our relations with China; but 44% said the opposite – Australia should build stronger relations with China even if it might harm our US relationship.

Illustration: Matthew Martin

The Pacific: pinching pennies doesn’t make for policy longevity

Australians see a moral obligation to help the region but many don’t support spending money on aid (Photo: DFAT/Flickr)
Australians see a moral obligation to help the region but many don’t support spending money on aid (Photo: DFAT/Flickr)
Published 27 Jun 2019 13:00    0 Comments

When it comes to “stepping-up” in the Pacific, Australians get the what, they get the who, and they get the why. But they still have a long way to go before they’re convinced that spending more on foreign aid is in the national interest. 

Attitudes towards the Pacific revealed in the Lowy Institute Poll show Australians taking a pragmatic if parochial approach to foreign policy in the region.

Australian are broadly supportive of increased engagement. They agree there’s a moral obligation to help the region (77%) and – encouragingly – they believe Australia’s aid is making a difference. (60% disagree that aid has little impact on the Pacific).

Australians are also strongly on board with attempts to stymie increased Chinese influence in the region (73%). They support (54%) a plan to extend Australia’s regional military presence with a joint base with the US on PNG’s Manus Island. More than three quarters of Australians (77%) would happily send their soldiers to prop up a troubled nation in the region.

Illustration: Matthew Martin

But as for spending more money to help the development of their neighbours – and other countries around the world?

The answer is a resounding no, thanks. Only 49% believe Australia should spend more on aid in the region – and 48% disagreed.

Nothing in the government’s current approach is likely to persuade them otherwise.

Australians are getting the step-up they support, and they don’t seem to be worried that paying for it means standing down elsewhere.

Only 17% of respondents would spend more on foreign aid, if they were in charge of the federal budget. More than a third of respondents believe that aid actually hurts the Australian economy, and 40 percent believe it makes no difference to our national security.

That’s despite 70% of them believing that foreign aid helps Australia’s relations with other countries.

It’s a confused and short-sighted approach. A lot of this is driven by misperception about how much Australia actually gives. As has been noted when assessing previous Lowy Institute polls, Australians believe we are a generous nation, and that we are already doing enough.

It’s a confused and short-sighted approach, driven a lot by misperception about how much Australia actually gives.

The reality, however, is that Australian aid is miserly by any measure you look at. The Australian NGO community and other aid advocates do their best to champion this reality, but they are drowned by the much more powerful soapbox of federal parliament. It’s incumbent on politicians to convince people of why aid matters, and why Australia needs to be doing more.

Australia does have significant foreign policy priorities in the Pacific – but it also should have a voice in other global issues. A rich, developed economy should be able to support its nearest neighbours, and also other countries that can benefit from help. Confining development assistance to the immediate region may provide some fiscal relief for other parts of the budget. But it won’t go un-noticed globally.

Australia’s ability to bring more like-minded partners into the region to support its step up will be tricky if it’s seen as not pulling its weight (or even turning up) to help with global development challenges.

The Lowy Institute Poll shows that while Australia’s approach to the region is broadly supported by the public, there’s one area where the public and the government are wide apart: climate. Australians have identified in this survey that climate change is a critical threat to their national interest.

The same assessment has been made by Pacific leaders who made the threat from climate change the focus of last year’s Boe declaration.

For Australia, the job of building a stronger, multi-faceted and robust relationship with the region benefits from the renewed focus of the step-up. Having a coherent, credible climate policy will make that task a lot easier.

Are Australians more worried about climate change or climate policy?

Wandandian, New South Wales, during the 2018 drought (Photo: Brendon Thorne via Getty)
Wandandian, New South Wales, during the 2018 drought (Photo: Brendon Thorne via Getty)
Published 26 Jun 2019 11:00    0 Comments

The latest Lowy Institute poll indicates that Australians are increasingly concerned about climate change and its implications. Three figures are particularly telling.

First, and perhaps most striking, Australians have identified climate change as the most critical threat to Australia’s “vital interests”. Almost two thirds (64%) of respondents described climate change as a critical threat, above cyber attacks (62%), terrorism (61%) or North Korea’s nuclear program (60%), for example.

While perhaps surprising, this continues a steady increase in this view of climate change in the Lowy polls over the past five years. It also builds on a 2017 Senate Inquiry into the national security implications of climate change. And as I wrote The Interpreter that same year, the results of an unofficial survey of academic researchers in the field of international security indicated that these researchers overwhelmingly identified climate change as the most pressing threat to global security.

Second, the latest poll indicates that Australians believe energy policy should primarily orient around reducing carbon emissions. This policy priority was identified as the most important by 47% of respondents, higher than reducing household bills (38%) or reducing the risk of power blackouts (15%).

Third, 61% of Australians surveyed agreed with the statement that global warming is “a serious and pressing problem (and) we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”. This is the highest point for over a decade (since 2008). 

Illustration: Matthew Martin

So is this grounds for hope that we will see substantive action on climate change in Australia? Will public attitudes ultimately drive new and ambitious climate policy?

Aside from the ideological commitments of this government, there are three big reasons to be cautious.

First, the poll indicates significant demographic differences between Australians. While younger Australians seem deeply concerned about climate change and its implications, older Australians are more ambivalent. Over three quarters of Australians aged 18-44 (76%) agreed with the proposition that “climate change is a serious and pressing problem (and) we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”. By contrast, less than half of those aged over 45 (49%) agreed with this proposition. Combined with significant differences in attitudes to climate change between rural and urban voters, and based on levels of wealth and education, this suggests continued divisions across the country that policy-makers may struggle to overcome.

Second, Australians had a chance at the ballot box only weeks ago to send a strong and meaningful message about their desire for climate action, and largely didn’t. While the Greens did quite well, Australians ultimately voted in a government that had gone to the election with minimal emissions reduction targets, a commitment to new fossil fuel projects, no new emissions reduction policy and a track record of steadily rising emissions.

Third, we’ve been here before. One fascinating feature of the Lowy poll figures on climate change concern since 2006 is the seemingly inverse relationship between public concern and policy ambition. The high point of support for action on climate change was the first year of the survey in 2006 (68%), when John Howard was overseeing continued rises in greenhouse emissions and refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. This began to drop quickly and significantly under Labor governments, reaching a low point when the carbon tax came into effect in 2012 (36%). Under subsequent conservative governments from 2013, when Tony Abbott was elected promising to repeal the carbon tax, public concern has steadily grown to the current figure of 61% (2019).

These latter two points suggest that when Australians are ultimately faced with supporting strong climate action, they get cold feet. Perhaps this is the product of effective mobilisation by forces and voices for climate inaction. But it probably shouldn’t be this easy for public opinion to be manipulated, at least not to the scale we’ve seen with climate change.

A simpler, if more cynical, interpretation is that when we think we might need to make sacrifices to act on climate change, our concerns about climate change itself starts to wane, at least relative to other considerations.

Protestors in Melbourne in May demand action on climate change (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty)

The challenge for substantive policy action all this poses is significant.

It involves overcoming divisions across the country on this issue, encouraging Australians to recognise and prioritise the threat of climate change itself over action designed to address it, and developing  alternative narratives to the (often misleading) claims about the irrelevance of Australian mitigation action or the economic costs of transitioning away from fossil fuels. It should also ideally involve Australians recognising obligations to outsiders more vulnerable to climate change, less responsible for climate change and less able to adapt to it.

The big question is whether any political leaders in Australia are capable of harnessing current concern about climate change and sustaining broad community support for policy that substantively addresses it.

Time will tell. Although if the scientists are right, we’re running out of it.

The polls were wrong, but here’s our poll, and why you should read it

The Lowy Institute Poll gives Australians a voice on pressing issues that will have an effect on them
The Lowy Institute Poll gives Australians a voice on pressing issues that will have an effect on them
Published 26 Jun 2019 06:00    0 Comments

It’s not exactly the best time to be releasing an opinion poll. In the wake of the 2019 election, there are fair questions about why we poll any more. But today we launch the Lowy Institute’s annual poll and it is still deeply revealing about Australian attitudes on foreign policy.

Before we look at some of the findings, first on polls in general.

The election polls were wrong. And not just within the margin of error wrong, as some have defended, which is true in particular cases but not true across the country.

What went wrong? There will be a review, and it will be hard to say – but we know that polling is getting harder. Here are a few (non-exhaustive) thoughts.

1. The samples weren’t sufficiently representative

Traditional polling has been living on borrowed time since the decline of the landline telephone. Polling 101 says this: you need a representative sample, and you need the people in the sample to tell you the truth. A sample is truly representative if all members of the population have a chance of being included in the sample and that their chance of inclusion is known.

Now that a White Pages isn’t representative of most of the country, pollsters are using a variety of methods including blending and “weighting” data from potential voters that they reach via mobile, fixed line telephones, and online. The confidence we have in the representativeness of the sample is therefore reduced significantly. Because fewer people answer their phones, it is cheaper to use robo-polling (computers asking questions by telephone), but this may introduce additional biases. Pollsters are constantly tweaking methodology, and traditional weightings protocols can struggle to keep up.

The decline of the landline telephone (Photo: m kasahara/Flickr)

2. Polls are at risk of being contaminated by conventional wisdom

Some commentators suggest that election polls are affected by “herding”. That is, pollsters tend to not publish results that differ too much from what the other pollsters are saying.

There is safety in numbers – and conventional wisdom said that the Coalition could not win the election. To the extent that no one wants to be an outlier, this can lead to polls all being wrong in the same direction.

The herd (Photo: ilirjan rrumbullaku/Flickr)

3. Election polls do not generally publish the undecided votes

When the two-party preferred is published as 49­–51, the data is actually something closer to 44–46 with 10% undecided. Pollsters that don’t otherwise account for the undecideds, assume that they will vote with a similar split to the rest of the poll. That is a significant proportion of the electorate about which to make assumptions, when elections are won and lost by a few points.

So there are challenges that election pollsters are dealing with. But here’s the thing. Issues polls – such as the Lowy Institute Poll – are different.

For starters, it is more affordable to ensure your sample is representative when you only poll once a year, rather than every few weeks. We use the only probability-based (equal chance of being represented) panel, Life in AustraliaTM, at significant cost but with confidence in the methodology and consequently, the result. Most of the large international firms also use panels of this nature.

There is less incentive for issues polls such as ours to align their results with other findings in the field. The Lowy Institute Poll is currently the only opinion poll focused solely on foreign policy in Australia. There is little in the way of conventional wisdom for us to adjust to, and no attempt to do so.

The Lowy Institute Poll repeats many questions from previous years, allowing us to track trends over time, rather than relying on a single result in a single year.

And possibly most importantly, we disclose all of the “don’t know” responses. We do this not only to be transparent and accurate, but also because for our purposes, “don’t know” can point to a lack of awareness, knowledge or engagement – all of which are important for policymakers to be aware of.

For us, it’s the trends that matter most.

The Lowy Institute Poll repeats many questions from previous years. This allows us to track trends over time, rather than relying on a single result in a single year. Small differences in results (49:51) don't change the interpretation of trends in the way they change the outcome in an election poll. So 49% of Australians say this year that foreign interference in Australian politics is “a critical threat” to Australia's interests, and 51% say the same thing about a severe downturn in the global economy. The two percentage points between those propositions are insignificant because they are within the margin of error: what really matters is that concern about foreign interference has risen eight points in one year, whereas concern about the global economy is stable.

Polls still have interesting stories to tell. People are asking what happened to the “climate election”. The 2019 Lowy Poll shows the highest levels of concern about climate change in the past decade. But it also shows falling levels of optimism about our economy. We can see how this may have played out in different electorates.

The Lowy Institute Poll gives Australians a voice on these pressing issues that will have an effect on them. In this sense, the Poll is democratic: and this poll finds 65% of Australians think democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. To dismiss public opinion polling entirely would be to dismiss public opinion.