Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Lowy Institute Poll: The world according to Australians

Looking over two decades of polling numbers, a nuanced view emerges about the changing international context.

Tracking the many views that make up the whole (Manuel Augusto Moreno/Getty Images)
Tracking the many views that make up the whole (Manuel Augusto Moreno/Getty Images)

In 2024, Australians are wary towards China, and worried about the United States. They are divided on immigration, but united on the value of cultural diversity. Threat perceptions have changed. While a majority of Australians continue to see climate change as a pressing problem, their views on energy sources, cost trade-offs and policy options have shifted.

For two decades, the Lowy Institute Poll has reflected the world through Australian eyes. On the release of the 20th edition of this flagship Institute product, we look back at a few of the most significant trends in the Poll’s history.

China – a trust deficit

One of the most striking features in the last several years of Lowy Institute Polling has been Australians’ lack of trust in China. In 2024, despite some slight improvement, only 17% of Australians express any level of trust in China to act responsibly, and only 12% say they have confidence in President Xi Jinping. At the same time, threat perceptions remain high – seven in ten (71%) think it likely that China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.

But this wasn’t always the case. In 2005, our first Poll revealed a sense of optimism about China’s rise. Seven in ten Australians (69%) had positive feelings towards China. More Australians were positive about the free trade agreement we had just started negotiating with China than the one that had just been sealed with the United States. Only 35% of Australians were worried about “China’s growing power”, which ranked lowest on a list of potential threats.

That sense of optimism prevailed well into the next decade. In 2016, Australians ranked China as “Australia’s best friend in Asia”, at the top of a list that included Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, India and South Korea. As recently as 2018, more than half of Australians (52%) said they trusted China “somewhat” or “a great deal”, and the vast majority saw China as more of an economic partner than a military threat.

By that stage, official relations had already hit turbulence over allegations of CCP interference in Australian politics. But it wasn’t until 2020 that public perceptions of China really plummeted. Against a backdrop of Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, Beijing’s furious reaction, and statements of concern about human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Beijing froze high-level contact and imposed a range of coercive trade measures against Australia. Australians’ trust, warmth, and confidence in China and its leader reached a nadir in 2021-2022.

The election of the Albanese government in 2022 provided a circuit-breaker. But just as the Labor government frames official ties as a “stabilisation” rather than as a reset, so too have public perceptions remained cautious. Now, half of Australians (51%) say Australia should place more importance on a stable relationship with China, while 45% say Australia should prioritise working with allies to deter China’s use of military force – even if it means harming the relationship.

United States – the unpredictable ally

If a decline in attitudes towards China has been one clear trend over the Lowy Poll’s history, then ambivalence towards the United States is another.

In 2024, the vast majority (83%) of Australians see the alliance with the United States as important to our security. Widespread support for the alliance has been one of the most consistent features over the Poll’s history.

But Australians have long harboured misgivings about the implications of the alliance, whether it was regarding the US invasion of Iraq, which divided the country, or the sense now, held by 75% of Australians, that our security ally could draw Australia into a war in Asia.

This year, six in ten Australians (61%) now support using nuclear power to generate electricity. In 2011, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, roughly the same number (62%) were against.

It’s not hard to imagine what is causing this anxiety. US-China competition remains intense, and Australians see the risk of war over Taiwan or in the South China Sea as two of the foremost threats to the nation.

At the same time, we face the prospect of two very different Americas after the presidential election in November. And on that note, while confidence in US President Joe Biden slipped 13 points to 46%, when judged against his opponent, two-thirds (68%) would prefer to see Biden re-elected.

Nearly one-in-three (29%) prefer Donald Trump – the highest level of support for any Republican contender in the last four presidential elections.

Climate and energy: shifting trade-offs

In the very first Lowy Institute Poll, Australians saw global warming as a key threat to the nation, and ranked “improving the global environment” as Australia’s top foreign policy objective.

In 2024, concern about the threat of climate change remains high. But in the context of cost-of-living pressures and declining economic optimism, more Australians prioritise “reducing household energy bills” over “reducing carbon emissions”.

Most Australians, however, still want to see action on climate change. Since 2018, views on the urgency of the issue have largely stabilised. A majority (between 56–61%) have seen global warming as a “serious and pressing problem” requiring immediate action. A smaller group (between 28–34%) think the problem can be dealt with gradually, while a small minority (between 9–12%) remain unsure it is actually a problem.

Attitudes towards energy sources have shifted markedly. This year, six in ten Australians (61%) now support using nuclear power to generate electricity. In 2011, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, roughly the same number (62%) were against Australia building nuclear power plants to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In contrast, a majority of Australians are now negative towards coal, with about six in ten supporting “reducing Australian coal exports to other countries” and “banning new coal mines from opening in Australia”.

Meanwhile, support for renewable energy remains solid, with two-thirds either saying the government’s renewable energy target is “about right” (41%) or “not ambitious enough” (25%).

Immigration: contrasts and divisions

Immigration remains one of the more contentious issues in the Poll. In 2024, about half the population think the total number of migrants coming to Australia is “too high” (48%), while the other half say it is either “about right” (40%) or “too low” (10%).

Nevertheless, when asked about Australia’s cultural diversity – a product of decades of immigration – Australians were overwhelmingly positive (90%).

Contrasting views on immigration are not new. For example, in 2019, a majority of Australians agreed that “immigration has a positive impact on the economy of Australia” (67%) and that “accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger” (62%). However, in the same question, a majority (71%) also agreed that “Australian cities are already too crowded”.

Rather than reading them as contradictions, these attitudes reflect the complexity of issues like immigration, which straddle people’s interests, values and identity.

That also applies to how Australians look at the country’s major relationships, its action on climate change, and the nation’s foreign policies.

The Lowy Institute Poll has tracked two decades of changing Australian attitudes to the world. In reading those trends, as always, context and nuance matter.

Download the 2024 Lowy Institute Poll and explore two decades of Poll data on our interactive website.

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