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Poll shows Aussies support migration, feel safer but wary of China

8 August 20230 comments

More Australians feel safe than did last year, their belief in democracy remains strong and they remain relatively hopeful about Australia’s economic outlook.

And support for the nation’s migration program remains high but three years of global turmoil have left Australians more sober about the future and worried about the rise of China, the potential for war between China and the US, and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

These are the key findings of the 2023 Lowy Institute Poll, an analysis of how Australians see the world and their place in it, now in its 19th year.

The poll found anxiety about the threat of war between the US and China remain high. In the event of such a conflict, more than half of Australians say Australia should remain neutral.

But in a conflict over Taiwan, Australians are more positive about acting in concert with the US, even if this means sending military supplies to the government in Taipei or deploying the Royal Australian Navy to help prevent China from imposing a blockade around Taiwan.

Against a backdrop of rising tensions in Asia, Australians broadly approve of the government’s plans to bolster the nation’s deterrent capabilities. Two-thirds still favour Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS partnership, although many think the deal is too expensive and there are differing views on how the submarines will impact regional stability.

But one result that remained consistent, in line with previous Lowy Polls, was Australians’ support for the US alliance with eighty per cent of Australians seeing the alliance as important for Australia’s security.

They also think President Joe Biden has restored some measure of respect for the United States after the turbulence of the Trump years. But three-quarters of Australians think the alliance makes it more likely Australia will be drawn into a war in Asia.

Migration remains a key economic priority for Australians with more 70 per cent in favour of a robust intake.

More than half of Australians (53%) say the number of immigrants allowed into Australia should be ‘around the same as pre-Covid levels’, up seven points on 2022. A quarter (26%) say immigration should be ‘lower than pre-Covid levels’, a fall of seven points from 2022, while 20% say the intake should be higher.

The poll probed Australians’ trust in global powers and world leaders.

“The vast majority of Australians continue to trust Japan (85%), the United Kingdom (84%) and France (79%) ‘somewhat’ or ‘a great deal’ to act responsibly in the world. Russia (8%) and China (15%) are once again the least trusted global powers of those surveyed. Trust in the US (61%) has declined slightly by four points compared to 2022, while trust in India (58%) and Indonesia (51%) remains stable from last year,” the poll report said.

“Australians have high levels of confidence in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, with 72% saying they have ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of confidence in each leader. Echoing Australians’ declining trust in China since 2018, confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping remains low (11%). Russian President Vladimir Putin (7%) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (3%) remain the least trusted of the 11 leaders included in the 2023 Poll.”

Australians’ feelings of safety rebounded by ten points from last year, with 63% of the population now saying they feel ‘very safe’ or ‘safe’. ‘Cyberattacks from other countries’ now tops the list of threats worrying Australians, with seven in ten (68%) identifying it as a ‘critical threat’ to Australia in the next ten years.

But more than six in ten Australians (64%) see the prospect of a military conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan as a critical threat — almost twice as many as in 2020 (35%). Against a backdrop of thawing Australia–China relations, fewer Australians see China’s foreign policy as a critical threat, down six points from last year to 59%. Only three in ten Australians (30%) now say ‘Covid-19 and other potential epidemics’ are a critical threat — a dramatic 46-point decrease from 2020.

Asked about security and defence policy, half of Australians say AUKUS, the trilateral partnership between Australia, the UK and the US, will make Australia safer (49%), and a slightly lower number say it will make the region safer (46%). Similarly, half say the Quad partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the US will make Australia (51%) and the region (50%) safer.

Two-thirds of Australians (67%) are either ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ in favour of the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS, a similar result to that in 2022 (70%). But Australians have mixed views about their impact: three in ten (28%) think the submarines will ‘deter military conflict and help ensure stability’ in the Indo-Pacific region, while two in ten (20%) think they will ‘increase the risk of military conflict and instability’. The remainder (52%) either say the submarines will make no difference or they are not sure of their impact.

But almost half (47%) do not think the submarine program is worth the estimated cost (reported as between $268 billion and $368 billion). When considering the broader federal budget, 41% of Australians would increase defence spending, a fall of ten points from 2022.

A majority of Australians (57%) say they favour allowing the US to base military forces in Australia, down six points from last year. On defence strategy, four in ten (40%) say that ‘to keep Australia safe, we should invest more in military capabilities that protect Australia close to home’. A smaller minority (26%) say we ‘should invest more in military capabilities that deter potential enemies far from our shores’, with one-third (34%) unsure about either approach.

As the second year of Russia’s war on Ukraine rolls on, Australians continue to show very high levels of support for assisting Ukraine. Almost nine in ten (87%) say they ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ support ‘keeping strict sanctions on Russia’. More than eight in ten (84%) support ‘admitting Ukrainian refugees into Australia’. Three-quarters (76%) support ‘providing military aid to Ukraine’. However, the number who ‘strongly support’ each of these measures has waned since 2022.

The poll asked about tensions between the US and China with six in ten Australians (61%) believe that in ten years, China will play ‘a more important and powerful role as a world leader’.

More than one-quarter (28%) think China’s position will remain ‘about the same as now’. By comparison, close to half (45%) expect the role of the US as a world leader to stay the same as it is now. Two in ten (22%) expect the United States will play a more important and powerful role in ten years.

Meanwhile, eight in ten Australians (82%) see the alliance with the US as ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’ to Australia’s security, down five points from a record high last year. However, three-quarters of Australians (74%) think the alliance makes it more likely Australia would be drawn into a war in Asia. A smaller majority (61%) think the alliance makes Australia safer from attack or pressure from China.

Three-quarters of Australians (73%) think the US is more respected in the world under President Joe Biden, whereas only one-quarter (24%) think the United States was more respected under President Donald Trump.

A majority of Australians (56%) see the resumption of contact between Australian and Chinese ministers as either ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ positive for Australia’s national interests. At the same time, a larger number of Australians see China as ‘more of a security threat’ (52%) than those who say it is ‘more of an economic partner’ (44%) to Australia. However, in 2023, the number who see China as more of a security threat dropped 11 points on last year, while the number who see China as more of an economic partner increased by the same amount.

Looking to the future, a strong majority of Australians (75%) think it ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ likely that China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, 30 points higher than in 2018 (45%). The vast majority of Australians (87%) are either ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about China potentially opening a military base in a Pacific Island country.

The poll asked about attitudes to potential conflict.

“In the event of a military conflict between China and the US, more than half (56%) say Australia should remain neutral, an increase of five points from 2022 (51%). Four in ten (42%) say Australia should support the United States, down four points since 2022,” the report said.

“However, when asked how Australia should respond if China invaded Taiwan, a strong majority of Australians (80%) say they would support ‘accepting Taiwanese refugees into Australia’. Similarly, three-quarters (76%) say they would support ‘Australia imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions on China’, two-thirds (64%) would support ‘Australia sending arms and military supplies to the Taiwanese government’, and six in ten (61%) say they would support ‘using the Australian Navy to help prevent China from imposing a blockade around Taiwan’.

“The only option that was not supported by most Australians was ‘sending Australian military personnel to Taiwan to help defend it from China’ (42%).”

The poll found most Australians thought Australia’s position in the Pacific as stable or improving.

Half of Australians (49%) think that Australia’s relations with Pacific Island countries are staying about the same. A quarter (26%) think they are improving, and 22% think relations are getting worse.

“Australians remain overwhelmingly in favour of using aid to fund a range of objectives in Pacific Island countries. Almost all (92%) support providing aid for disaster relief,” the report said.

“The vast majority of Australians favour providing aid ‘to help prevent China from increasing its influence in the Pacific’ (84%) as well as for long-term economic development (83%). Similarly, eight in ten (80%) support providing Covid-19 vaccines to Pacific Island countries, and 76% support providing climate-related aid.”

Despite global economic difficulties, optimism about Australia’s economic performance in the next five years remains high at (62%), unchanged from 2022. A strong majority (70%) say that Australia should place a high priority on ensuring supply chains run through countries that are friendly towards Australia, even if it means higher prices. Only three in ten (29%) say the priority should be ‘keeping prices as low as possible, even if it means that supply chains run through countries that are unfriendly towards Australia’.

Asked about democracy, three-quarters of Australians (73%) continue to see it as preferable to any other kind of government, a result that remains at a record high. Younger Australians are now more likely to see democracy as preferable compared to five years ago, narrowing a long-running age gap on this issue.

On climate change, a majority of Australians (56%) continue to say ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem’ about which ‘we should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs’. Only three in ten (32%) say ‘the problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost’.

Australians are split between those who think introducing an Indigenous Voice to parliament would improve Australia’s international reputation (47%) and those who think it would make no difference to Australia’s reputation (44%). Very few (8%) believe it would damage Australia’s reputation.

Lowy Institute Executive Director Dr Michael Fullilove said the poll showed Australians had “caught their breath”.

“The World Health Organisation has declared that the Covid-19 emergency is over. The Australia–China relationship has begun to thaw out after several years in the freezer. Russia remains stubbornly committed to its brutal and illegal assault on Ukraine, but the initial shock of the invasion has subsided,” he said.

Dr Fullilove said the poll revealed a “sober optimism” on the part of Australians looking out to the world.

“More Australians feel safe than last year. Their belief in democracy remains strong. They remain relatively hopeful about Australia’s economic outlook,” he said.

“But there has been no return to factory settings. The shocks of recent years broke many underlying assumptions about the world.

“In some cases, attitudes have changed dramatically. The Australia–China relationship is stabilising and the sharp decline in Australian perceptions of China has levelled out. However, the levels of trust, confidence and warmth towards China and President Xi Jinping remain strikingly low.

“A majority of Australians see the resumption of ministerial contact between the two countries as a positive development. However, most consider it likely that, in the future, China will pose a military threat to Australia.

“It is hard to see trust in Russia recovering in the face of its ongoing aggression in Ukraine. Well into the second year of the conflict, as Ukraine prepares its counter-offensive, Australians remain overwhelmingly in favour of providing assistance to Kyiv,” Dr Fullilove said.