What Australians think

Two special forces soldiers embrace as the C-130 carrying Sergeant Brett Wood, departs Tarin Kot Airfield, Saturday, May 28, 2011, in Uruzgan, Afghanistan Even before a spate of recent deaths, the Afghan war was largely unpopular

Having recently decried the over-reliance of polling and focus groups in Australian political life (polls here are not so much pseudo news events as the full-blown thing) I am going to devote an entire blog to the findings of a single poll.

In my defence, it is a major survey, and its findings illuminate issues that we've been discussing over the past couple of months - from the environment to WikiLeaks, from Afghanistan to China, from asylum seekers to Indonesia. It comes from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a foreign policy think tank that does a lot of heavy-lifting when it comes to pondering Australia's role in the world. Someone has to, right?

Before we get to its findings, a quick word on its value. As Bob Carr, the former premier of New South Wales, purred in his rich caramel voice during the panel discussion that launched its publication, polls can be particularly useful in identifying trends and in testing arguments. The Lowy survey not only asked what people thought but why. What makes the study doubly useful is that it has been asking pretty much the same questions for the past seven years.

So what were the headlines?

The environment:

A farmer herds sheep at the Charlie Bragg farm in Cootamundra,135 km (83 miles) northwest of Canberra in this March 10, 2011 file photo Concern about climate change has plummeted, the poll suggests

Support for forceful government action to tackle climate change has shrunk sharply. Five years ago, 68% of respondents agreed with the statement that global warming was a "serious and pressing problem" and that Australia should take steps even if this involves "significant costs". The figure now is just 41%.

The report also found that the willingness to pay is declining, which has obvious political connotations as the government attempts to push through its carbon tax. Some 39% said they would not be prepared to pay anything extra on their electricity bill - nearly double what the figure was just three years ago.

One theory is that the then Rudd government failed to make the case for action strongly enough back in 2008, when the Australian public was far more galvanised and when environmentalists dominated the debate.

There's the failure of the Copenhagen summit in 2009. The conservative opposition has also got a lot of traction with its argument that a carbon tax is damaging at both a macro- and micro-level, hitting both the economy overall and household incomes as well. I'd be keen to get your thoughts.


Some 59% are now opposed to Australia's continued military involvement, which chimes with a series of recent opinion polls.

It is also worth pointing out that the poll was taken a few months back before the start of this year's fighting season and a series of Australian deaths. The two most persuasive reasons for staying were that Afghanistan women would have their rights seriously violated by an extremist government, and that Australia has an obligation to stay in the country until the job is done.

Asylum seekers:

There's been a slight drop in the level of public concern about unauthorised arrivals heading to Australia by boat - down to 72% from 78% last year. But obviously, that figure is still very high.

Of those, 92% were worried that asylum seekers might be badly injured or killed during the journey; 88% thought they were jumping the queue; 86% thought they posed a security risk; and 85% thought that too much money was spent on processing and detaining asylum seekers.

Again, it is worth pointing out that the survey was conducted before the broadcast of Go Back to Where You Came From on SBS, but my hunch is that the series would not have shifted the figures that much, if at all.

Not enough people who harbour these kinds of concerns would have watched it. More on that later in the week, when SBS broadcasts it follow-up discussion programme.


The survey revealed a strong mistrust of Australia's most important near neighbour. Just 5% said they trusted Indonesia "a great deal", which put it in the same category as Egypt (3%) and Iran (2%).

International aid:

Australians dramatically overestimate the amount spent. The average guess was 16% of the federal budget. What do you reckon (the answer is below).


A majority of adults thought the website was a good thing (62%) all of which is stereotype-reinforcing stuff. More on that later in the week as well, as a play about Julian Assange opens in Sydney.

Australia's international goals:

The biggest downward movement, again, was on tackling climate change. For the first time, it could not command a majority. The biggest upward movement was the goal of protecting Australian citizens abroad. The lowest ranking of all was seeking a seat on the UN Security Council, which is one of Kevin Rudd's pet projects.

Your thoughts, as ever, are welcome.

(Answer: Foreign aid takes up 1.3% of the budget.)

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I think the most recent two decades in Australia are signified by the rise of the anti-intellectual with a bit of money. These people believe they 'carry the country' and that every cent spent on welfare is wasted (although happy to take 'middle class welfare'). Having newfound power (via their money), and assisted by base politician, they drive debate in this country. Sad, but temporary I hope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Sadly the problem in Australia at the moment is greed. If you look at the media coverage by a certain news network, their headline story is that "average households will be a scant 20c better off". People should be happy that they're being compensated at all, but no, despite the whole point being to create a price trigger, everyone is still only interested in "what's in it for me?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Australians' resistance to the so-called carbon tax has become a focal point and a rallying cry for opposition by the majority of Australians to any move that may inconvenience their/our generally enviable, high-standard life-style. Indeed, it appears to mirror the world's reluctance to accept the need for change. If Australia cannot, can the world? A crucial subject is reduced to rhetoric.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    intbel, CO2 is carbon!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Carbon Tax for Polluters

    I think we need to be very sure that carbon is the problem before we start charging people more. Taxing shifts the balance of things in unknown directions. The jury is still out on Carbon.

    There is also the problem that ALL governments think that they way to deal with a problem is to tax it.

    One day we will be paying more tax than we earn !

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    William and Kate and The King's Speech swung support for an Oz republic below 50%. We need a film and some personalities who can have similar success upping support for popular action on climate change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    To paraphase, "its the money, stupid". The latest polling results can be linked directly to Australians aversion to having to pay, even for good and right causes. What a pity, as lovers of the environment, such character trait shows a lack of reason. As regards Indonesia, what is the commonality between Indonesia, Iran and Egypt? Enough said; again a pity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    To the labor caucus during Rudds reign as pm,he was leading with no direction,the govt had lost its way.

    Today the Gillard govt is leaping everywhere trying to placate the public.We have a carbon tax which is now only temporary,this is new (lol),to be come an ETS in 2-3 yrs.Thats where Rudd lost his way and got knifed. Now throw lots of cash at the unhappy cowboys.ok Surplus?oh no! doomed

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What the hell is Kevin Rudd doing. He is running around chasing his dream of being on the UN Security Council, sucking up to anyone that listen. Meanwhile no one in Australia cares and our own Foreign Policy issues are in crisis. I don't understand how such a self-centred man can be popular with voters. Well the media is giving him a fee ride.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Seems like weather patterns and seismic conditions in the Pacific haven't been noted in the Aussie diaspora. What do they think is causing it, New Zealand?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    What do I think? I think that if people stopped listening to how bad they have it, especially by the media, and actually made up their own minds for once then they would realise just how bloody good things are in this country!

    Sorry. Just not liking how whingey our fat & spoilt nation is becoming...

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    'What Australians think'

    I once heard an Australian woman call someone, whom she thought to be a fool, an "oxymoron". "What Australians think" might have made a good example for this figure of speech.

    I believe that the majority of Australians cannot think for themselves and this is at the heart of the appalling political and cultural milieu. Sport is the only concept Aussies hold of value.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The Australian education and public information systems need to actively do more to combat the misinformation and self interested emphasis of private media.
    This would help future surveys demonstrate how great Australians are instead of exposing their ignorance.
    As it is the survey shows how powerful vested interests can influence public opinion, so they can now increase their advertising rates!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    any aussies thinking about where the clouds of atomic dust from the japanese disaster are landing? there are farms in wales and scotland that still cannot sell produce due to fallout from the chernobyl accident, does the press ever discuss this topic?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This Australian thinks... the Canberra settlement prevails on this blog and its comments. Good luck with the 160,000 immigrants and anything goes attitude. Glad I left.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It's a pity about our feelings towards Indonesia. I'm sure it would rate even lower after the cattle scandal.
    I'm a bit shocked to see the poll shows that Australians are more likely to trust Russia over Indonesia to act responsibly in the world.
    Maybe this would be due to local reporting - I don't believe there's alot of stories on the goings on in Russia in the Aussie media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I don't think the carbon tax is ridiculous. Australia (the worlds highest CO2 emitting country) should be leading the world in clean energy but is being held back by petty politics. Taxing the polluters is the only language that business understands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I think the downturn in support for climate change action comes from a perception that it's all just a money making scam.

    Carbon trading indeed! We are told the alleged problem is CO2, not carbon.

    The whole thing is ridiculous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The Lowy Institute surveys and findings can at least be trusted. The government and opposition however seem to be taking their polls on whatboganslike.com . Kneejerk reactions and policy to appease the 25% of voters who swing (not in a fun way) I think the downturn in support for climate change action comes from a perception that its all so futile to do anything unless china & USA join in also.



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