Wednesday 23 Oct 2019 | 22:01 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The Lowy Institute conducts significant research on Australia's diplomacy, and its long-standing public opinion polling program, the Lowy Institute Poll, has become an important input into Australian foreign policy since 2005. The Institute also runs the Australia-Papua New Guinea Network, an innovative public diplomacy project to foster people-to-people links between the two countries.

Australia is one of the most highly globalised nations on the planet and extremely dependent on an effective and active diplomacy. In a region undergoing rapid and transformational change, where shifting power balances are creating uncertainty about the existing regional order, Australia’s security and prosperity rely heavily on its international networks and relationships with both near neighbours and geographically-distant allies.

Research on Australia's diplomatic network

The Lowy Institute has conducted ground-breaking comparative research on Australia’s diplomacy and that of like-minded nations. It focuses on Australia's diplomatic network and the resourcing of its international policy infrastructure. It has also produced influential studies on public diplomacy, digital diplomacy, and consular affairs. The Institute’s work has been instrumental in shaping a parliamentary enquiry into Australia’s diplomatic network,  providing independent, non-partisan policy options to steer Australia’s diplomatic future. In 2016, the Lowy Institute released the Global Diplomacy Index, an interactive web tool which maps and ranks the diplomatic networks of all G20 and OECD nations. The interactive allows readers to visualise some of the most significant diplomatic networks in the world, see where nations are represented – by city, country, and type of diplomatic mission – and rank countries according to the size of their diplomatic network.

Australia-Papua New Guinea Network

In an important public diplomacy initiative, the Institute runs the Australia-Papua New Guinea Network, a program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to foster people-to-people links between Australia and Papua New Guinea. For more about the Australia-Papua New Guinea network and its activities, access the site here.

The Lowy Institute Poll

To inform the public debate on Australia's foreign policy, the Institute has conducted annual polling of Australian public opinion on foreign policy since 2005. The annual Lowy Institute Poll has become one of the Lowy Institute’s flagship publications. It is the leading tracking survey on Australian foreign policy, providing a reliable vehicle for understanding Australian attitudes towards a wide range of foreign policy issues, while being independent and methodologically rigorous. Over the course of the past decade the Poll has uncovered significant shifts in public sentiment, including towards our most important neighbours and partners. It has tracked attitudes on contentious international issues ranging from climate change to war in the Middle East.

The annual Poll is entirely funded by the Lowy Institute to ensure its ongoing independence, and its questionnaire and results are thoroughly reviewed by one of Australia’s most experienced polling experts, Sol Lebovic, the founder and former managing director of Newspoll. Data sets are deposited with the Australian Social Science Data Archive where they are available free of charge for public scrutiny.

One of the best ways to explore the data from our twelve years of polling is through our interactive site. Access the interactive here.

Alternatively, to download the poll reports for each year, click on these links:

In addition to its Australian polling program, the Lowy Institute has conducted influential polls in several of our most important neighbours in Indo-Pacific Asia, including India (2012), Indonesia (2006 and 2011), New Zealand (2007 and 2012), China (2009) and Fiji (2011).

 

Experts

Natasha Kassam
Research Fellow, Diplomacy and Public Opinion Program
Alex Oliver
Director of Research

Latest publications

Australian attitudes to China shift: 2019 Lowy Poll

Among many interesting findings in this year’s Lowy Institute Poll, one new question produced a particularly striking result given Australia’s debate over how to navigate the looming tech cold war between the US and China.

44% said “protecting Australians from foreign state intrusion” should be the government’s first priority when consdiering which foreign companies should be allowed to supply new technology for important services. 

This ranked well ahead of access to the most sophisticated technology (28%) and keeping prices down for Australian consumers (28%).

This suggests the government has public support for its August 2018 decision to ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE Networks from taking part in the construction of the national 5G network for national security reasons; and sits with the most startling finding of this year's survey: trust in China to act responsibly in the world dropped a huge 20 points to 32%.

Australia was an outlier in the 5G decision at the time, which remains deeply unpopular with the Chinese state, even while it disavows any direct connection with both companies. But since then, Australia’s move has been followed by New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan and most enthusiastically, the US, which has gone much further; even banning US companies including chipmakers and Google from dealing with Huawei at all.  

The UK, Germany and France have permitted selective involvement in 5G from Huawei under increased security measures; and it is still an open question in many other countries. China is likely to keep the pressure up as positions harden on both sides.

You couldn’t rule out xenophobic overreaction on our part, but the reputation of Chinese investment has also been indelibly tainted through its politicisation by the Chinese government.

 

The focus on national security priorities when it comes to new technology aligns with other results in the 2019 poll. Cyber attacks from other countries are seen as a critical threat by 62%, up 5 points from last year and the second highest result after climate change at 64%.  

And in 2019 more Australians are concerned about foreign interference in Australian politics. 49% say foreign interference in Australian politics is a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, up 8 points from last year. This significant shift in public concern follows last year’s new legislation designed to prevent foreign interference, which earned a frosty reception in Beijing.  

Chinese investment is on Australian’s minds too. The share of Australians who believe the government is allowing “too much” investment from China has steadily climbed from 50% a decade ago to 68% in 2019.

You couldn’t rule out xenophobic overreaction on our part, but the reputation of Chinese investment has also been indelibly tainted through its politicisation by the Chinese government. China has weaponised tourism against South Korea; buying power against Norway; and obliquely threatened Australia over the flows of Chinese students, coal and wine exports; all following the respective countries’ political decisions Beijing did not like. Politically neutral investment makes Belgium and Japan - Australia’s third and fourth largest sources of FDI, well ahead of China - uncontroversial.

These results match with a general souring on China in the poll, where China’s score on the annual feelings thermometer dropped 9 points to 49 degrees.

77% agree Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region even if this affects our economic relationship – a similar question in 2015 saw 66% agree.

74% say Australia is too economically dependent on China.

79% agree that China’s infrastructure investment projects are part of China’s plans for regional domination; just 44% characterise those projects across Asia as “good for the region”.

Only 27% say Australia is doing enough to pressure China to improve human rights, the lowest number since the question was first asked in 2008.

It all suggests a newly assertive, increasingly autocratic China will have an uphill battle in convincing foreign publics of its goodwill, even ones like Australia that have been generally warm to China, viewing it as a key economic partner. Over the past 15 years of Lowy polling, China’s economy, culture and people have generally beeen viewed positively and China has been viewed warmly (around 58 on the poll’s feelings thermometer for years); but its system of government and human rights record have always deeply troubled Australians. 

But it’s clear the economic gravitational force of China still exerts huge sway. When it comes to picking sides, the much-debated “China choice” that everyone would prefer we never have to make, between the US and China; Australians remain deeply divided.

50% said we should maintain strong relations with the US even if it might harm our relations with China; but 44% said the opposite – Australia should build stronger relations with China even if it might harm our US relationship.

Illustration: Matthew Martin

The polls were wrong, but here’s our poll, and why you should read it

It’s not exactly the best time to be releasing an opinion poll. In the wake of the 2019 election, there are fair questions about why we poll any more. But today we launch the Lowy Institute’s annual poll and it is still deeply revealing about Australian attitudes on foreign policy.

Before we look at some of the findings, first on polls in general.

The election polls were wrong. And not just within the margin of error wrong, as some have defended, which is true in particular cases but not true across the country.

What went wrong? There will be a review, and it will be hard to say – but we know that polling is getting harder. Here are a few (non-exhaustive) thoughts.

1. The samples weren’t sufficiently representative

Traditional polling has been living on borrowed time since the decline of the landline telephone. Polling 101 says this: you need a representative sample, and you need the people in the sample to tell you the truth. A sample is truly representative if all members of the population have a chance of being included in the sample and that their chance of inclusion is known.

Now that a White Pages isn’t representative of most of the country, pollsters are using a variety of methods including blending and “weighting” data from potential voters that they reach via mobile, fixed line telephones, and online. The confidence we have in the representativeness of the sample is therefore reduced significantly. Because fewer people answer their phones, it is cheaper to use robo-polling (computers asking questions by telephone), but this may introduce additional biases. Pollsters are constantly tweaking methodology, and traditional weightings protocols can struggle to keep up.

The decline of the landline telephone (Photo: m kasahara/Flickr)

2. Polls are at risk of being contaminated by conventional wisdom

Some commentators suggest that election polls are affected by “herding”. That is, pollsters tend to not publish results that differ too much from what the other pollsters are saying.

There is safety in numbers – and conventional wisdom said that the Coalition could not win the election. To the extent that no one wants to be an outlier, this can lead to polls all being wrong in the same direction.

The herd (Photo: ilirjan rrumbullaku/Flickr)

3. Election polls do not generally publish the undecided votes

When the two-party preferred is published as 49­–51, the data is actually something closer to 44–46 with 10% undecided. Pollsters that don’t otherwise account for the undecideds, assume that they will vote with a similar split to the rest of the poll. That is a significant proportion of the electorate about which to make assumptions, when elections are won and lost by a few points.

So there are challenges that election pollsters are dealing with. But here’s the thing. Issues polls – such as the Lowy Institute Poll – are different.

For starters, it is more affordable to ensure your sample is representative when you only poll once a year, rather than every few weeks. We use the only probability-based (equal chance of being represented) panel, Life in AustraliaTM, at significant cost but with confidence in the methodology and consequently, the result. Most of the large international firms also use panels of this nature.

There is less incentive for issues polls such as ours to align their results with other findings in the field. The Lowy Institute Poll is currently the only opinion poll focused solely on foreign policy in Australia. There is little in the way of conventional wisdom for us to adjust to, and no attempt to do so.

The Lowy Institute Poll repeats many questions from previous years, allowing us to track trends over time, rather than relying on a single result in a single year.

And possibly most importantly, we disclose all of the “don’t know” responses. We do this not only to be transparent and accurate, but also because for our purposes, “don’t know” can point to a lack of awareness, knowledge or engagement – all of which are important for policymakers to be aware of.

For us, it’s the trends that matter most.

The Lowy Institute Poll repeats many questions from previous years. This allows us to track trends over time, rather than relying on a single result in a single year. Small differences in results (49:51) don't change the interpretation of trends in the way they change the outcome in an election poll. So 49% of Australians say this year that foreign interference in Australian politics is “a critical threat” to Australia's interests, and 51% say the same thing about a severe downturn in the global economy. The two percentage points between those propositions are insignificant because they are within the margin of error: what really matters is that concern about foreign interference has risen eight points in one year, whereas concern about the global economy is stable.

Polls still have interesting stories to tell. People are asking what happened to the “climate election”. The 2019 Lowy Poll shows the highest levels of concern about climate change in the past decade. But it also shows falling levels of optimism about our economy. We can see how this may have played out in different electorates.

The Lowy Institute Poll gives Australians a voice on these pressing issues that will have an effect on them. In this sense, the Poll is democratic: and this poll finds 65% of Australians think democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. To dismiss public opinion polling entirely would be to dismiss public opinion.

Lowy Institute Poll 2019

After a year of heated domestic debate on issues such as climate change, foreign influence and technology, the 2019 Lowy Institute Poll reveals significant changes in how Australians view our most important international partners, and the world around us.

After the Australian election: the China test

Governments in Australia are judged, in part, by their handling of the relationship with China. And while foreign policy has barely featured in Australia’s election campaign, the Chinese government is watching our election with interest and intent.

An early release of this year’s Lowy Institute poll results shows that Labor is now marginally preferred to manage relations with China, with 47% of Australians choosing Labor compared to 44% for the Coalition. This may suggest tensions in the bilateral relationship over the past few years have been noticed by voters. Prior to the 2016 election, 47% of Australians thought the Coalition would do a better job, compared with 35% for Labor.

If there is a new government, the Chinese government will see an opportunity to reopen done deals and press for new concessions.

Whoever forms government after 18 May will be tested by China. If the three-year trend of national opinion polls is right and Bill Shorten becomes Prime Minister, the Chinese government will see an opportunity to reopen done deals and press for new concessions.

A new government could face challenges in dealings with critical partners and allies such as Indonesia, Japan, India and the United States. But these countries are far less likely to unleash state media every time their government is criticised in Australia. The idea of Indian officials instructing its diaspora how to vote in an Australian election sounds implausible, for example. And yet when Labor blocked the ratification of a bilateral extradition treaty with China, it was reported that senior Communist Party officials threatened to tell the Chinese community in Australia that Labor did not support the bilateral relationship.

There are already reports that Chinese officials intend to hold up coal from Australia until after the election. The sources for this report are vague at best, but China’s slowdown on Australian coal has already allowed other competitors that are seen as more friendly to China take some of our market share.

What might China ask a new Labor government for, in exchange for a resumption in normal coal trade?

A review of the current Australian government decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network would be at the top of the list. China is looking to isolate Australia in its decision to ban Huawei. It will be pleased by the recent United Kingdom decision to allow Huawei to build non-core parts of its 5G network.

As much as Beijing might hope to relitigate this decision with a new Labor government, it seems unlikely to happen. For its part, Labor would have been pleased that this decision was made prior to the election. It has generally been aligned with the Coalition on China policy and security issues. The foreign interference legislation, for example, was passed with bipartisan support.

A new Labor government would be looking to highlight positives in the relationship. Bill Shorten has already signaled that Labor’s policy would not preemptively frame China as a strategic threat, which is code for having an independent policy from the United States.

And while China likely won’t be able to reverse the Huawei decision, it may expect more traction on its signature Belt and Road initiative. The Coalition has been hesitant to engage with the Belt and Road. But the likely incoming Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, has said Australia has risked missing out on opportunities by equivocating on the Belt and Road.

Australian media barely noticed that Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson was in Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum last week, and gave a speech highlighting Australia’s intention to engage further with the Belt and Road. But Chinese state media was paying attention.

Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong speaking at the Lowy Institute on 1 May. 

Penny Wong did not revisit her views on the Belt and Road at her 1 May Lowy Institute address. She emphasised that Labor would be disciplined and consistent in managing Australia’s relationship with China. Labor may have been in lockstep with Coalition on policy issues, but Labor has criticised what it calls disjointed and provocative megaphone diplomacy from the Coalition.

But if it wins office, Labor may not find it a simple task to deliver a consistent China policy. Internal debates about whether Australia should conduct freedom of navigation issues in the South China Sea have been made public and reveal some space between the shadow foreign and defence ministers.

The 2019 Lowy poll results suggest the Coalition may have been blamed for the downturn in bilateral relations, but it is unclear if Labor could have handled challenges presented by Beijing any differently. The Chinese government is likely aware that it can stoke tensions in Australia, and the Australian government of the day tends to be blamed. Much of the business community is already wary of Shorten, and a further deterioration in bilateral relations with China would only add to their skepticism.

Penny Wong said values would dictate her foreign policy – this is an easy position to take in Opposition. But this Labor government would not repeat the mistakes of Kevin Rudd, who overestimated his ability to withstand the pressure that came from being frank about the appalling human rights situation in China. Wong is on record expressing “deep concern” over the internment of over a million Uighurs in Xinjiang, but in stark contrast to Labor of the past, says the Coalition response has been appropriate.

A new Labor government’s response to pressure from the Chinese government would be an early test. Shorten and Wong may have acknowledged that difficult decisions are ahead. But it remains to be seen if they can sell these difficult decisions to the Australian public.

Why reciprocity matters: the US Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act

Western governments have long complained about the lack of reciprocity in dealing with China. As the traditional basis for international relations, reciprocity suggests that benefits and penalties alike, granted from one state to another, should be returned in kind.

In diplomatic relations, Chinese ambassadors expect – and agitate – to meet foreign ministers. But foreign ambassadors to China are generally given access to much more junior officials.

As a result of its developing country status, China is the beneficiary of special treatment in the World Trade Organisation. China is entitled to more relaxed environmental protections under various treaties and defends its human rights record on the basis of this status – despite now being the world’s second-largest economy. Western governments have catered to various demands in trade and elsewhere, based on the principle that the benefits of engagement with China outweighed the drawbacks.

We are now at a point where China’s state broadcaster is able to beam news programs that often amount to little more than propaganda into the living rooms of Americans and Australians. By contrast, access to most foreign news services, including the New York Times and the ABC, is banned in China.

Foreign journalists in China are in some cases subjected to harassment and visa delays, and risk being kicked out of the country when visas are refused. Chinese journalists are generally welcomed to other countries, although there are increasing levels of scrutiny under foreign interference legislation.

In diplomatic relations, Chinese ambassadors expect – and agitate – to meet foreign ministers. But foreign ambassadors to China are generally given access to much more junior officials at director general rank (or perhaps the vice minister, if you are the US ambassador). Chinese officials have walked out in protest of international meetings when they are not accorded the same status as ministers.

But 2018 saw changes in the US approach to China. In trade relations, the US has demanded more reciprocity from China. And in December last year, more than five years after it was first introduced by Democratic Representative James McGovern, the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 was signed into law.

This law essentially brings the concept of reciprocity back to the table, when it comes to access to Tibet. China restricts foreigners from travelling to Tibetan areas – in some cases, by regulation, and in others, by intimidation.

Foreign tourists can travel to Tibet with a tour group at particular times. Journalists and diplomats can only visit Tibet at the invitation of the Tibetan government.

But the new US law stipulates that any individual “substantially involved” in the formulation or execution of these restrictions in Tibet cannot visit the United States, as long as these restrictions remain in place.

This week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is required by the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act to deliver to Congress a report that explains the level of access granted by the Chinese government to Tibetan areas.

He will likely report that foreigners still cannot visit Tibet without permission from Tibetan authorities. The Tibet Autonomous Region is currently the only area in China that requires separate approvals for foreign tourists, foreign residents and, accredited foreign journalists, or diplomats in China.

He will remind Congress that China prevented US consular officials from attending to a 2013 bus crash in Tibet for more than two days, where three US citizens had died, in breach of China’s obligations under the Vienna Convention. Similarly, US consular officials struggled to provide consular assistance to US citizens trapped during a 2015 earthquake in Tibet.

He will probably also point to the increased barriers that Tibetans living in the west face when trying to visit their homeland.

Will this Reciprocal Access Act inspire some reciprocity from the Chinese system? It’s possible the Tibet Foreign Affairs Office is scrambling to arrange a delegation from the US Embassy in Beijing before Pompeo delivers his report.

But that seems unlikely, given senior government officials are now claiming that Chinese travel restrictions are in place in order to benevolently protect foreigners from the dangers of altitude sickness. This claim is particularly absurd given the neighbouring Qinghai province has many areas higher than Tibet’s capital Lhasa and is not subject to the same formal restrictions. The same official from Tibet complained that the US Reciprocal Access Act “had seriously interfered in China’s internal affairs”.

The more likely outcome from this Act’s passage is a reduction in visits to the United States by Tibetan delegations. The Chinese system may be sufficiently incensed by this to improve consular access for the US Consulate in Chengdu, which is responsible for Americans in Tibet.

More than anything, this Act will have the Chinese system watching with concern the congressional push for direct sanctions against individual Chinese officials in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has interned between 1 and 1.5 million Uighurs.

The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act won’t change the plight of millions of Tibetans or relax the restrictions on foreigners visiting the region. But there are some signs that outside pressure can move Beijing in the right direction.

Chinese officials now know that the United States is, at times, willing to legislate for reciprocity. China’s days of treating the United States as a peer and expecting special treatment at the same time may be limited.

Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index 2017

The 2017 Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index has extended its coverage to Asia: with 17 more countries, it now maps and ranks 60 of the most significant diplomatic networks of the world - all G20, OECD and Asian nations.

Same-sex marriage survey: Gen Y got involved and the pollsters got it right

The same-sex marriage survey, or the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey as the Australian Bureau of Statistics framed it, is finally done. The result – 61.6 % for, 38.4% against – is a strong one; at 1.604:1, it’s eerily similar to the golden ratio or ‘divine proportion’ in mathematics, architecture and science of 1.618. For someone who loves numbers, that’s a poetic end to a divisive and for some, very painful, process.

Of the many criticisms that have been levelled at the survey, my own included, the survey methodology was a central problem. It was not a vote in the way of Australian election voting. It was not compulsory and lasted a torturous 83 days from when the first surveys were posted to the outcome, leaving the entire process open to the reproach that any result could not accurately be said to be representative of national sentiment. The ABS wisely refrained from calling it a plebiscite, presumably on the basis that the postal method and voluntary nature meant that in a scientific sense it could not purport to be a true plebiscite.

Yet the response rate for the marriage survey was very high at 12,728 million of the eligible ‘universe’ of 16,006 million Australians; just 0.5 points shy of 80%. As a comparison point, the turnout rate at the last federal election was 91%.

A voluntary survey risked not capturing the views of young people. It’s hard to entice younger people to vote, even in compulsory elections. At the last federal election, the voting rate among eligible 18-19 year olds (taking into account their low enrolment rate) was low at around 66%, climbing to around 80% for 30 year-olds. This compares with the much higher rate of over 90% for those aged over 60.

Compounding this was the postal element. I’ve known 18 year olds who’ve never written a letter, never mind finding a letter box. Their elders had no problem with that of course, with almost nine in ten (89.6%) 70-74 year-olds responding to the same-sex marriage survey.

Yet the younger age groups did take part, despite those obstacles. The participation rate of 18-19 year olds – 78.2% - was almost as high as that of the whole population, 79.5%. The participation rate among Gen Y’s (18-34 year-olds) was above 75% overall.

Then there is the issue of accuracy. For once, the pollsters got it pretty much right.

There has been much consternation at recent failures of polling to predict the results of elections. The 2016 US presidential election, the Brexit vote, the 2015 UK election and the Scottish independence referendum all highlighted the vulnerability of a long-standing methodology which was somehow missing the ‘shy Tory’/’shy Trump’/’shy [insert appropriate political persuasion]’ effect. The ‘shy voter’ is, the theory goes, ashamed or wary of admitting to a conservative or ‘politically incorrect’ view.  

Attempts to predict the Marriage Law survey result ran the same risk. People responding to newspaper polls during the voting period might be wary of admitting they had responded ‘no’. One team of university researchers used data analytics to predict a narrow ‘no’ result, despite the mainstream news outlet surveys indicating the opposite. 

However, external polling done throughout the survey by various organisations fairly accurately predicted both the result and the turnout. Newspoll had the ‘yes’ vote at 58% last week with a 2.5% error margin, Essential Poll had it at 64% a few days earlier. Newspoll almost exactly predicted the final turnout at 79%.

Meanwhile, the wide margin of 23.2 points between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ vote in the marriage survey is one that Australia’s mainstream political parties could only dream of in a national vote. And with its 79.5% turnout, the voluntary marriage survey very nearly matched that of the last federal election, even with its compulsory element. If you factor in the informal vote of 5% at the 2016 election, the proportion of voters participating in the marriage survey fell only 6 points short of our last compulsory election.

That makes the result very hard to argue with.

 

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