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Lowy poll: On China and energy, Australia maintains its sunny disposition

Lowy poll: On China and energy, Australia maintains its sunny disposition

Overall, Australians continue to feel secure in the face of rising instability in the world and terrorism threats at home, according to the latest Lowy Institute poll.

But that sense of security is declining. 80% of those asked how safe they feel about world events responded positively in 2015. This figure is down by 12% on 2010, the last time the question was posed. The proportion of those who felt unsafe jumped by the same margin, to 19% – the highest figure recorded since polling began, in 2005.

This erosion in public perceptions of security is hardly surprising in a year that saw the Lindt Café siege in Sydney and a spate of terrorism-related arrests nationwide. Nor should it surprise that Australians overwhelmingly judged terrorism threats, at home and abroad, to be the country's leading security risks, with the emergence of ISIS ranked highest, at 89%, above terrorism attacks on Australian overseas (87%) and home-grown terrorism (84%). 

Echoing these threat perceptions is a solid 69% support level recorded in this year's poll for Australia's participation in military action against ISIS in Iraq, even though over half of respondents believe such action is likely to increase the risk of terrorism to Australia. It is noteworthy that a slim majority of the public appears willing to accept an increased level of insecurity in this regard.

When it comes to recent tensions between states in Australia's region, the latest poll data points to more sanguine public perceptions. [fold]

Despite a relatively high score (72%) for those who think maritime disputes between China and its neighbours pose risks to Australia's security, public concerns about any direct threat from China have apparently eased over the past year.

There was a significant drop in the number of respondents who believe it is likely that China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, falling from 48% to 39% in 2014. A significant plurality (77%) of Australians are also inclined to see China as an economic partner, compared with just 15% who perceive it as 'more of a military threat'. 

This three-quarters-full view of the Chinese vase is likely to have been reinforced by the trouble-free course of Australia-China economic relations throughout 2014, capped by the conclusion of the China-Australia FTA following President Xi Jinping's state visit here last November. Nor was there any apparent fallout from Canberra's parallel cultivation of a closer security relationship with Tokyo. 

It is evident from the poll that Australians display a rational preference for maintaining an even keel between East Asia's two largest economies following a period of intense China-Japan tensions. According to the results, 84% support neutrality in the event of a Sino-Japanese conflict (it's the first time this question has been asked).

On the face of it, such impartial sentiment sits at odds with Canberra's pursuit of a closer defence and security relationship with Tokyo. 

Yet the Lowy Institute poll 'thermometer' reveals that Japan ranks ahead of China as a country Australians feel warmth towards, by a margin that has gradually widened in recent years. Much would clearly depend on the nature of any armed conflict between Japan and China, and whether the US became involved. In the absence of parallel data in the US, we might ponder how many ordinary Americans would evince automatic support for intervening on Japan's side, irrespective of official assurances and obligations offered within the terms of the US-Japan alliance. Australians' desire for neutrality between China and Japan is only sensible in this ambiguous context.

The Lowy Institute poll also set out this year to gauge public attitudes towards questions affecting our energy security. The results suggest that Australians' naturally sunny dispositions can sometimes cloud their judgement. 

Asked to identify Australia's primary source of electricity ten years from now, 43% identified solar and only 17% said coal. This contrasts sharply with the actual figure of just 2% of electricity generation currently from solar, whereas coal presently accounts for 64%. Only 10% saw gas as the leading candidate for power generation, although it is already the second-largest component in the energy mix, behind coal. Most surprisingly, a significant proportion of Lowy poll respondents, 13%, believe that nuclear will provide most of Australia's electricity in 2025, despite the fact that there are no nuclear power-generation plants in the country and none planned. 

Interesting developments are occurring in energy production and storage technologies, as illustrated in yesterday's excellent Four Corners story, 'The End of Coal'. We should not discount the breakthrough potential for renewables to contribute meaningfully to baseload power. Nonetheless, the Lowy Institute poll still reveals a substantial disconnect between public expectations and the baseline realities of where our future energy security policies must flow from. 

Whether the issue is energy policy, climate change or international security, if such disconnects are not detected early then governments may struggle to carry voters with them, or they may meet resistance when policy correction is required. Good public opinion polling can be the canary in the coal mine.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

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