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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).


Latest publications

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.


The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll Interactive

The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll looks at Australians' reactions to a turbulent year in world politics.

The Poll, the thirtennth annual Poll by the Lowy Institute,  examines attitudes to important issues such as the importance of the US alliance in the Trump era, renewable energy, how Australians feel about the direction of the nation and world. The Poll provides data on how public opinion on some of our most important relationships, including those with China and the United States, is evolving.

To explore the updated 2017 Lowy Poll Interactive, click here. See the full 2017 report below.

2017 Lowy Institute Poll

After a turbulent year in global politics, the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll contains thought-provoking findings about how Australians have reacted to world events, and how they feel about the direction of our own nation.

2017 Lowy Institute Poll: Australians say global engagement and US alliance are safe – for now

This time last year, we labelled 2016 a year of polls; the Australian election, the Brexit vote, and the US presidential election dominated the news. It follows, then, that 2017 is a year for assessing the impact of the previous turbulent 12 months.

The 2017 Lowy Institute Poll, released today, finds that Australians have reacted to global events in a typically pragmatic way. But they are troubled about the direction of the world and divided about the way our own nation is travelling.

When asked their views on ‘the way things are going in the world today’, 79% of Australians respond that they are ‘dissatisfied’. And our feeling of safety – though still strong – remains at its lowest point in our 13 years of polling. While nearly four in five feel safe overall, only 20% say they feel ‘very safe’, down four points since last year and a significant 24 points since 2009.

International terrorism (68%) and North Korea’s nuclear program (65%) top the list of ‘critical’ threats to Australia’s vital interests. Climate change ranks third (57% say it’s a critical threat, up 11 points since 2014), along with cyberattacks from other countries (55%), and ahead of a ‘severe downturn in the global economy’ (53%), ‘the presidency of Donald Trump’ (42%), foreign investment (40%), and asylum seeker arrivals (38%).

In line with this rising perception of the threat of climate change, 54% of Australians see global warming as ‘a serious and pressing problem [and] we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs’ (up 18 points since 2012). And even in the midst of a fierce debate on energy security, almost all Australians (81%) prioritise government investment in renewables over traditional energy sources such as coal and gas ‘even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable’. Only 17% say ‘the government should focus on traditional energy sources such as coal and gas’. 

Nearly eight in ten (79%) of Australians see ‘the presidency of Donald Trump’ as a critical or important threat to Australia’s vital interests. The strong implication from the 2016 Poll was that Australians might recoil from the US alliance under a Trump presidency. At the time, nearly half the country (45%) said that ‘Australia should distance itself from the United States if it elects a president like Donald Trump’.

So far, however, the presidency of Donald Trump has not dented Australians’ support for the US alliance. In fact, support for the alliance has rebounded six points since last year with 77% saying the alliance is ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ important for Australia’s security. Only 29% now say ‘Australia should distance itself from the United States under President Donald Trump’ (16 points lower than the response to the corresponding question last year). Australians appear to have adjusted quickly to the reality of the Trump administration.

However, Donald Trump was unpopular here before the election and remains unpopular now. Six in ten Australians say Donald Trump causes them to have an unfavourable opinion of the United States. More strikingly, the number of Australians who trust the United States 'a great deal' to act as a responsible global power has halved since 2011. Only 20% of Australians now have a ‘great deal’ of trust in the United States to ‘act responsibly in the world’. The 61% of Australians who trust the United States overall (‘a great deal’ and ‘somewhat’) compares starkly with the 86% who trust Germany and Japan and the 90% who trust the United Kingdom (even after the Brexit vote in 2016, which only 19% of Australians supported).

While support for the US alliance remains strong, the friendship between the two nations is being stretched under the new US administration. When Australians are asked who is their ‘best friend’ in the world, the United States has halved its support since 2014, dropping to second place alongside the United Kingdom (17% nominating each as Australia’s best friend). New Zealand is the clear favourite, with 53% (up 21 points since 2014) nominating it as Australia’s best friend of six countries polled. A gulf has opened up between New Zealand and the rest.

Australians’ pragmatism continues to characterise their attitudes to China. While it falls a long way down on our list of best friends (only 8% of Australians nominating China as our best friend), we continue to see the relationship as vitally important. China and the United States remain on level pegging when we ask which relationship is more important to Australia: in a statistical tie, 45% say the United States and 43% say China. And although almost half (46%) of Australians believe China will become a military threat in the next 20 years (up seven points since 2015), most of them (79%) still see China as more of an economic partner than a military threat.

Perhaps because of that crucial economic relationship, few Australians favour direct confrontation with China. Only 34% of Australians support the use of Australian military forces ‘if China initiated a military conflict with one of its neighbours over disputed islands or territories’. Freedom of navigation operations are seen in a different light, however, with 68% in favour of Australia conducting ‘maritime operations designed to ensure freedom of navigation in the region’.

Australians are far more willing to use our military forces when a conflict is at our own doorstep, or to prevent genocide or combat the terrorist threat. Most (77%) Australians would approve the use of Australian military forces ‘to restore law and order in a Pacific nation’, and 81% are in favour of intervening ‘to provide humanitarian and military support' … ‘if there is another major crisis in the Pacific, such as happened in the Solomon Islands in 2003’. Three quarters (76%) favour the use of Australian military forces ‘to stop a government committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people’, and 61% ‘to fight against violent Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria’. We are divided (45% in favour, 48% against) on the use of Australian forces ‘if North Korea invaded South Korea’ and firmly against (31% in favour vs 62% against) military involvement ‘if Russia invaded one of its neighbours.’

After the events of 2016, it might have been expected that the forces of nationalism and protectionism which gained strength and influenced elections across the Western world would take hold in Australia. However, there is no evidence of this in the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll: 78% of Australians see globalisation as ‘mostly good for Australia’ – 14 points higher than in 2006.  More so than their American counterparts, a majority of Australians see free trade as good for the economy, jobs, our standard of living and Australian companies. Furthermore, optimism about the national economy has risen, with 74% of Australians (up four points since 2016) saying they are optimistic ‘about Australia’s economic performance in the world over the next five years’.

So while the events of the last year have unsettled Australians, they remain surprisingly positive about global engagement, perhaps because of the continued economic upside offered by China. They have adapted quickly to the new US administration, despite their dislike of Donald Trump. They may trust the United States less, but support for the US alliance remains firm.

Our traditional allies find themselves in turbulent times. But while Australians are clearly disturbed about recent events, the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll suggests that, for now at least, our historical predilection for pragmatism over panic is still strong.

Asia in the Age of Uncertainty

In the context of an increasingly demanding security environment in Asia, the Lowy Institute joined with five research partners in Asia Pacific in a six-nation 2016 multinational survey of public opinion in the Asia Pacific.