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Gillard faces trifecta of difficulties

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COMMENTS

28 June 2011 08:48

The annual Lowy Poll, released yesterday, highlights the growing difficulties the Gillard Government faces as it grapples with three of the most important international issues on its agenda: climate change, Afghanistan and Indonesia.

Climate change

With the Government already facing an uphill battle to introduce a carbon tax, the poll shows that support for aggressive action to reduce carbon emissions has fallen to a new low. Just 41% of Australians say global warming is a serious and pressing problem and that we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs. That's down 5 points from last year and 27 points since 2006.

Over the same period, support for the intermediate proposition – that global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, requiring steps that are low in cost — has nearly doubled. Support for the most sceptical position — that we should not take any steps that would have economic costs — has nearly tripled. To compound the problem, Australians' willingness to pay to help solve climate change has also substantially eroded. Thirty-nine per cent of Australians say they aren't prepared to pay anything extra on their electricity bill to help solve climate change, nearly double the proportion in 2008

The glimmer of hope for the Government is that 81% of Australians believe, at a minimum, that the problem of global warming should be addressed. That large majority is just divided over its effects and the scale of the response needed. The trick, then, would appear to be the message. Arguing the problem is catastrophic and thus justifying drastic measures will likely alienate the 40% of Australians who believe its effects will be only gradual, requiring steps that are low in cost.

Afghanistan

In the 10th year of the war in Afghanistan and as President Obama announces a drawdown in US forces, support for  the coalition operation has continued to erode, with a record majority (59%) of Australians now opposed to Australia's continued military involvement. That is a problem for Ms Gillard, who faces an increase in Australian casualties and as recently as November last year told parliament, 'Australia will not abandon Afghanistan'.

The poll suggests that one reason opinion is turning further against the war is that the Australian public does not buy the reasons the Government is giving for staying the course. In her speech to parliament the Prime Minister said 'Australia has two vital interests in Afghanistan': ensuring it doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists who will then use it to launch attacks against Australians, and to stand by the US. But the Lowy Poll found a majority of Australians disagree with both of these reasons for staying.

Interestingly, there was one argument that convinced a majority of Australians and even a majority of opponents of the war that we need to stay: 'If Australia and its allies withdrew from Afghanistan, Afghan women might have their rights seriously violated by an extremist government'. This human rights argument has barely rated a mention by Australian politicians.

Indonesia

On Indonesia, Australia faces one of its toughest foreign policy challenges. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade claims on its website that 'the relationship between Australia and Indonesia has never been stronger'. That is a stretch. Australian attitudes towards Indonesia are still mired in distrust and suspicion. It is troubling that, despite Indonesia's democratic and economic achievements over the past decade, Australians regard our largest and most important neighbor with such a lack of warmth.

The poll repeated a series of questions about Indonesia not asked since 2006 and the results were virtually unchanged. On a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 meant strongly disagree and 10 strongly agree, the statement 'Indonesia is essentially controlled by the military' received a mean rating of 6.9, the statement 'Indonesia is a dangerous source of Islamic terrorism' got a 6.5 and 'Australia is right to worry about Indonesia as a military threat' a 6.1. And the poll was taken before the latest controversy over the export of live cattle.

We won't know about Indonesian attitudes towards Australia until the Lowy Institute conducts a poll there later this year, but for Australian opinion towards our most important neighbour to be this bad is a serious obstacle to the development of a more mature relationship.

A cursory look at the Lowy Poll findings puts paid to the idea that politicians are slaves to fickle public opinion. On two of these major challenges – climate change and Afghanistan – the Gillard Government has staked out positions that rub up against, if not contradict, mainstream Australian opinion. It faces a tough challenge to bring more Australians on board.

Photo by Flickr user 11llustr4t0r.

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