Asia-Pacific

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.

Afghanistan:

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.

Indonesia:

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).

WikiLeaks:

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.)