In case anyone needed reminding, 2013 is an election year and the 2013 Lowy Institute Poll included an election-related question, asking Australian adults which of the two major political parties they thought 'would do a better job of handling' each of eight significant foreign policy issues. If foreign policy were any indicator of electoral success, then the answers of 1002 Australians surveyed in March would point to a clear result. By a factor of more than two to one, Australians of voting age in 2013 say that the Coalition would do a better job of:

  • Managing the Australian economy over time.
  • Managing foreign investment in Australia.
  • Handling the arrival of asylum seekers by boat.
  • Ensuring Australia's national security is maintained.
  • Maintaining a strong alliance with the United States.

Last week the Lowy Institute launched a new interactive tool to encapsulate some of the vast array of data we've amassed in the nine years of our polling program. Below is a snapshot of the election-related results, but click on the link to get the full interactive experience:

So, on some of the most important markers of a successful foreign policy for Australia – national security, the economy and looking after the US alliance – the Coalition is strongly preferred by the electorate in 2013.

Labor was preferred over the Coalition for 'managing Australia's relations with China', perhaps in recognition of the Gillard Government's efforts directed at stabilising and deepening the engagement with China* and 'managing Australia's response to climate change'. However, the snapshot above shows that Labor's edge on these issues was much narrower than the Coalition's lead on the others. Given the political grief the carbon tax has generated for Labor, the payout in terms of public opinion has been marginal, although the Poll also found that for the first time in seven years, there was a slight increase this year (4%) in the proportion (now 40%) of Australians seeing 'global warming (as) a serious and pressing problem (about which) we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs'.

One result was too close to call: that of 'managing relations with Asia'. This is thought-provoking for a government which released a long-anticipated and well-publicised white paper on relations with Asia but did not manage to gain much domestic traction on Asia relations in the ensuing months.

In Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's address to the Lowy Institute last Tuesday, he announced the release of the remaining two of the five country strategies proposed in the Asian Century White Paper, for China and Japan. Strategies for Korea, Indonesia and India were launched earlier in the year. He also reminded us that Australia assumes the presidency of the Security Council this month (the first time for over 27 years), and will host and chair the G20 in Brisbane next year. His government, and that of Julia Gillard, have been energetic on the world stage.

Yet despite all that, perhaps Prime Minister Rudd put it best himself when he said:  

As much as our economic prosperity depends on what we do at home, it is absolutely dependent on our ability to engage fully with the world....It’s vital that we understand the inter-connected complexity of all the above. But still, when you boil down all of the complex activities that happen in federal politics, for the average Australian, there is but just one truth about national government: It’s fundamentally about the economy and jobs.

No matter now much we might wish it, nor how important it may be, the foreign policy credentials of either political party or leader are likely to matter little on 7 September.

* Fieldwork for the 2013 Poll was conducted in March, before then Prime Minister Julia Gillard's China visit. The Lowy Institute Poll 2013 reports the results of a nationally-representative opinion survey of 1002 Australian adults conducted in Australia by fixed and mobile telephone between 4 and 20 March 2013.