The Lowy Institute’s 2021 survey of Australian Attitudes and Concerns
The 2021 Lowy Institute Poll captures the mood of the Australian public at this remarkable moment. Australians have a renewed sense of optimism about the world and their place in it. The country is rightly proud of its efforts to manage the pandemic. While Australians’ trust in many countries has increased in 2021, sentiment towards China is now quite bleak. For the first time, more Australians see China’s economic growth as a negative rather than a positive.
The majority of Australians blame China for the current tensions in the bilateral relationship.
“More Australians see China as a security threat than an economic partner.”
Confidence in China’s President Xi Jinping, already declining, has fallen to a new record low. However, Australians do not want regional competition to slide into confrontation. Most still believe we can maintain good relations with both superpowers. A majority of Australians would prefer to stay neutral in the event of a military conflict between China and the United States.
-Trust in global powers
Trust in China has fallen to a new record low, with only 16% of Australians saying that they trust China ‘a great deal’ or ‘somewhat’ to act responsibly in the world. This represents a 7-point decline from 2020 and is now a third of the level in 2018 when a majority of Australians (52%) said they trusted China. Almost all Australians (92%) trust Australia to act responsibly in the world. An overwhelming majority of Australians (87%) say they trust Japan and the United Kingdom to act responsibly in the world. Six in ten Australians (61%) say they trust the United States, an increase of 10 points from last year. The same number (61%) say they trust India a great deal or somewhat, an increase of 16 points since 2020. Almost half (48%) say they trust Indonesia, an increase of 12 points in the past year. Only 26% of Australians say they trust Russia, steady from 2020. Confidence in world leaders One in ten Australians (10%) say they have ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of confidence in China’s President Xi Jinping to ‘do the right thing regarding world affairs’, which has halved since 2020 (22%) and fallen 33 points since 2018. US President Joe Biden inspires confidence in far more Australians than his predecessor.
Seven in ten (69%) have confidence in President Biden, a striking 39 points higher than Australians’ confidence in former President Donald Trump in 2020 (30%).
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tops the list of global leaders again, with 91% expressing confidence in her (up 4 points from 2020). Australians also hold high levels of confidence in German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with 67% saying they have confidence in her. Two-thirds (67%) express confidence in Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a 7-point increase from 2020. The number who are confident in Australia’s Opposition leader Anthony Albanese remains steady at 56%. More than half (59%) have confidence in UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 4 points higher than in 2020. Six in ten Australians (61%) have confidence in Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Fewer Australians have confidence in other leaders in our region, with 38% expressing confidence in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and 26% saying they have confidence in Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Only 16% of Australians say they have confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Almost no Australians (5%) say they have confidence in North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Australia’s alliance with the United States A clear majority of Australians (78%, steady since 2020) continue to say that the alliance is either ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’ to Australia’s security.
“Three-quarters of Australians (76%) agree that ‘Australians and Americans share many common values and ideals. A strong alliance is a natural extension of this’. The same number (75%) say ‘the United States would come to Australia’s defence if Australia was under threat’”
Fewer Australians this year (58%) agree that ‘Donald Trump has weakened Australia’s alliance with the United States’ (down 8 points since 2019). Only one-third (36%) say ‘the United States is in decline relative to China and so the alliance is of decreasing importance’, a view held by almost half the population (46%) in 2019.
When asked about a military conflict between China and the United States, more than half the population (57%) say ‘Australia should remain neutral’.
Four in ten Australians (41%) say ‘Australia should support the United States’ and 1% say ‘Australia should support China’. Seven in ten Australians (72%) say it is possible for Australia to have good relations with the United States and China at the same time, a 15-point drop since 2013.
The majority of Australians (63%) now see China as ‘more of a security threat to Australia’, a substantial 22-point increase from 2020.
Only 34% say China is ‘more of an economic partner to Australia’, 21 points lower than in 2020. More than half (56%) say ‘China is more to blame’ than Australia for the tensions in the Australia-China relationship. Four in ten (38%) say that Australia and China are equally to blame. Almost none (4%) say ‘Australia is more to blame’. Australians are split over participation in the Winter Olympics in China: 51% favour attending, while 45% say Australia should not attend because of China’s human rights record. Three-quarters of Australians (76%) say ‘Chinese people [they] have met’ have positively influenced their view of China (down 9 points since 2016). Seven in ten Australians (68%) say China’s culture and history have a positive influence on their view of China, an 11-point decline from 2016. Less than half the population (47%) say China’s economic growth has a positive influence on their view of China, a steep 28-point fall since 2016. One in five Australians (20%) say that Chinese investment has a positive influence on their view of China, a 17-point decline from 2016. Only 17% of Australians say China’s environmental policies have a positive influence on their views of China, unchanged from 2016. A mere 6% say China’s system of government has a positive influence on their views of China, a 9-point decline from 2016. Almost no Australians (5%) see China’s military activities in our region as having a positive influence on their views of China. Safety and threats to Australia’s interests Australians’ feelings of safety appear to have rebounded from the record lows in 2020.
Seven in ten Australians (70%) say they feel ‘very safe’ or ‘safe’, an increase of 20 points.
-Six in ten Australians say that cyberattacks from other countries and climate change (62% and 61% respectively) pose critical threats to Australia’s vital interests in the next ten years.
Fewer Australians (59%) see COVID-19 as a critical threat in 2021, down 17 points from last year. More than half the population (56%) see North Korea’s nuclear program and AustraliaChina relations as critical threats. For the first time, the majority of Australians (52%) say a military conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan poses a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, an increase of 17 points from 2020.
Half (51%) say international terrorism is a critical threat, up 5 points since 2020, but 17 points below the level of concern in 2017. Five in ten Australians (50%) say a severe downturn in the global economy is a critical threat, a 21-point drop since 2020. Half (49%) say foreign interference in Australian politics poses a critical threat, a 7-point increase from 2020. A substantial minority say right-wing extremism (42%) and the influence of social media companies (39%) pose a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests. A mere 9% say a lower rate of immigration into Australia poses a critical threat.
-Economic optimism and foreign investment
In the largest rebound in economic optimism in the 17 years of the Lowy Institute Poll, 79% of Australians say they are ‘optimistic’ or ‘very optimistic’ about Australia’s economic performance in the world. This represents a 27-point lift since 2020. Most Australians would oppose a foreign government-controlled entity purchasing a controlling stake in a major Australian company. The highest level of opposition is to a Chinese-government controlled entity (92%) and a Hong Kong-government controlled entity (86%). The majority of Australians would also oppose such a purchase from an entity controlled by the Japanese government (68%), the government of a European Union member (67%), the United States government (66%) and the United Kingdom government (58%).
-Australia’s reputation in the world
Almost all Australians (97%) say Australia’s response to COVID19 will have a ‘very positive’ or ‘positive’ influence on Australia’s reputation in the world. The majority of Australians also agree that Australia’s diplomatic service (84%), foreign aid program (83%) and defence force (82%) have a positive influence on our reputation overseas. However, a majority of Australians (54%) say Australia’s climate change policy has a negative influence on Australia’s reputation overseas.
-Coalition government report card
The Australian public awards high marks to the Coalition government for its response to COVID-19 (7.6 out of 10) and for maintaining ‘Australia’s national security’ and ‘a strong alliance with the United States’ (both 6.8 out of 10). The government receives 6.6 out of 10 for managing the economy, and 6.5 out of 10 for presenting a good image of Australia internationally. Australians are more divided on China, awarding 5.1 marks out of 10 for the government’s management of the bilateral relationship. The only area where the government receives a below-average mark is for Australia’s approach to climate change (4.6 out of 10).
China has fallen to the bottom of the Lowy Institute ‘feelings thermometer’ at a very cool 32°, a 7-degree drop this year, and a striking 26-degree cooling since 2018. Australian feelings towards Myanmar have cooled to 41°. Both India (56°) and Indonesia (55°) have improved by 4 degrees since 2020. Feelings towards Hong Kong have remained stable in 2020 at 57°. Views of Papua New Guinea have warmed in 2021 to 60°, a 4-degree lift since 2020. Australians rated the Pacific Islands Forum a warm 66°. Warmth towards Taiwan has increased by 5 degrees to 62° since 2020. Feelings towards the United States sit at a steady 62°, unchanged from 2020. Feelings towards Japan have warmed in 2021, increasing 4 degrees to 73° in line with a warming trend (up 10 degrees since 2007). New Zealand again leads the Lowy Institute ‘feelings thermometer’ in 2021, receiving a very warm 87°. The COVID-19 pandemic Almost all Australians (95%) say Australia has handled the pandemic ‘very well’ or ‘fairly well’. Two-thirds (66%) say Taiwan has handled COVID-19 well. Less than half (45%) say China has handled COVID-19 well, a 14-point increase from 2020. Few Australians say that India (27%), the United Kingdom (19%) and the United States (7%) have handled COVID-19 well. Six in ten Australians (59%) say the government has done ‘about the right amount to bring Australians home from overseas’. Most support Australia helping to pay for COVID-19 vaccines for Pacific Island countries (83%) and Southeast Asian countries (60%).
-Climate change and energy
Six in ten (60%) say ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs’, a 4-point increase from 2020. Three-quarters (74%) say ‘the benefits of taking further action on climate change will outweigh the costs’. The majority of Australians support subsidising renewable energy technology (91%), setting a net-zero emissions target for 2050 (78%) and introducing an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax (64%). Ahead of COP26, seven in ten (70%) agree Australia should ‘join other countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, to increase its commitments to address climate change’.
The Lowy Institute Poll reports the results of a nationally representative online and telephone survey conducted by the Social Research Centre (SRC) between 15 and 29 March 2021, with a sample size of 2222 Australian adults.
Climate Poll 2021 reports the results of a representative survey conducted by SRC between 12 and 26 April 2021, with a sample size of 3286 Australian adults.