Tuesday 25 Feb 2020 | 01:31 | 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).


Latest publications

Australians shifting on climate change

A month ago my colleague John Connor wrote an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald welcoming the fact that for the first time in years, climate change was a major story coming out of the Lowy Institute's poll of public attitudes to international affairs. Expectation for leadership on the issue was up, and a majority of Australians thought we should act on climate rather than wait for international consensus.

The Climate Institute's own comprehensive annual public opinion poll, released just last week, found similar views, buttressed by a number of additional questions around international action. 

Percentage of Australians who want their nation to be a leader in climate solutions, based on Climate of the Nation research.

In our poll, 56% of respondents felt the federal government has the most responsibility to take a leading role in addressing climate change, followed by global organisations such as the UN (43%). Just 8% think the federal government should take no action on climate change. Yet views on the Government's performance are significantly lower than a year ago, at net differential of -18, from -1 in 2013.

Like the Lowy poll, we also found that a growing number of Australians want the nation to lead on finding solutions to climate change.

A total of 61% hold this view this year, the highest result since 2008 (see graph). Women and younger Australians are the most ambitious. Some 64% of women want Australia to be a leader compared to 58% of men, and 64% of Australians under 55 years of age want leadership, compared to 56% of older people. 

Views are not just growing stronger on leadership and responsibility, but also on policies and political parties. A majority (57%) think the Abbott Government should take climate change more seriously. Ambition again is strongest among women and Australians under 55, both at 61%. 

Deep cynicism permeates the views towards both political parties on their approach to climate change. Only 19% of Australians agree that the Coalition has an effective plan to tackle climate change. A slightly higher 26% agree Labor has an effective plan. These results are unchanged from 2013.  The 'Direct Action' badge does not shift the views of many Australians about the Government's plans on climate change, with only 22% agreeing that the 'Direct Action' policy is credible.

What these views tell us is that no politician is off the hook for addressing climate change, whichever end of the spectrum they represent. Beyond the domestic political impacts of attempts to remove the carbon price and calls for the weakening of the Renewable Energy Target, international processes will also come into play (the Climate Change Authority has just released a paper on key priorities and processes of the international framework to 2020).

Countries ranging from the US, China, Brazil, the EU nations, Mexico and New Zealand are initiating processes to define new emission reduction contributions. Like the recent announcements by President Obama (that his Administration will regulate major emission sources such as power stations and vehicles) when these new and stronger emission targets are announced over the next 12 months it will permeate the Australian debate.

Some in Australia's body politic would like to think that climate change will go away with the axing of carbon tax, but the storm brewing from public expectation and international action will be too strong to leave our political representatives unscathed. 

Young Australians talk about the value of democracy

Since Fergus Hanson first polled Australians on the value of democracy in the 2012 Lowy Institute Poll, our findings about how Australians, particularly young Australians, view democracy have variously provoked astonishment, bewilderment, disbelief, worry and frustration. Our 2014 Poll, released early in June, sought to understand better the thoughts of young Australians by adding 150 more 18-29 year olds to our usual polling sample, making a total of 364 of that age group in our overall sample of 1150 Australians of voting age this year. The larger sample makes the error margin even smaller than in our previous polls (down to 2.9% on the overall sample and 5.1% on the sample of 18-29 year olds).

The larger sample confirmed what we found in our earlier polls: the majority of young Australians either don't think democracy matters or think some other system might in some circumstances work better.

Less than  half (42% actually) of 18-29 year olds say that 'democracy is preferable to any other kind of government'. Thirty-three percent say 'in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable', and nearly one in five (19%) say that 'for someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have'. 7% say they don't know when presented with these three options about their views on democracy.

On learning about our polling on democracy and young people, the Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, the Hon Fiona Simpson, convened some groups of young Australians to talk about 'Why democracy matters' at Queensland Parliament earlier this year. These two short videos (one above and one below; each about 3 minutes long) offer a pretty compelling insight into how these articulate and thoughtful young people think about democracy. One young woman put it this way:

I think we take democracy for granted. I don't think that we actually know what a world without democracy would look like.

If you're interested in why we continue to get these low results from young people about the value they place on democracy, then watch these clips. They're beautifully produced pieces featuring young Australian leaders eloquently expressing their ideas about democracy, our political system, and what matters to them.  The Speaker summed it up like this:

There's a difference between having a voice and actually making a difference, and that's why I think we need to learn from those who already at a young age have discovered the difference and who also hold the keys for how we can make democratic processes more open to people.

Can women lead? Australians think so

Comments by Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard this week have invigorated the debate on women and leadership. Clinton's recently released book Hard Choices made news in Australia for the condemnation of the 'outrageous sexism' experienced by Gillard. In response, the former Australian prime minister identified continuing negative attitudes towards women as leaders: 'For men, that conversation starts with what kind of leader will he be, you know, strong, weak, compassionate, strident. I think for women, it starts with, can she lead? And it's a subtle but significant difference'. 

In this light, it is interesting to look at the public's views on male and female leaders in international relations, as revealed in the Lowy Institute's 2014 Poll. Those polled this year were offered for the first time a list of 10 leaders, six male and four female, and were asked who they most admired.

The headline results were promising, with three women in the top five admired leaders. However, there are some caveats around this. Because the question gave a list of choices, it doesn't give a sense of what the unprompted response would be. And the public doesn't seem to have much sense of some of the leaders, with 64% holding no view on Chinese President Xi Jinping. Views on Abbott and Shorten probably just reflect party voting patterns.

More revealing is the response to the question that posed an intriguing thought experiment: what would the world be like if there were more female leaders? Would it be better? Worse? Much the same?

There are arguments for each position.

Those who oppose women in public life are implicitly arguing that having them there would make the world a worse place. For a revealing example of this thinking in international relations look no further than Francis Fukuyama. He is on record as saying:

A world run by women would follow different rules, it would appear, and it is toward that sort of world that all postindustrial or Western societies are moving. As women gain power in (Western) countries, the latter should become less aggressive, adventurous, competitive, and violent.

This thinking has not yet been entirely dismissed from Australian life: there are still some who believe that women are wrecking the joint. However, the poll showed this to be a minority position, with only 7% thinking that more female leaders would make things worse.

The opposite argument is that women will improve international leadership, either because of their innate qualities or because of their life experience.

One of the perennial questions in the movement to increase the opportunities and space for women has been whether women deserve to be included because they are better than men or because they are the same. For the suffragette movement that sought votes for women, the tactical question was whether to argue that women should be able to vote because they are more moral (for example, they would promote better conduct in public life, would resist calls to send their sons to die in unnecessary wars, etc) or whether they should vote because they are just the same as men (that is, people that deserve the same rights). Some of the vitriol heaped on Gillard can be seen as a reaction to this sense that women in leadership positions should somehow be more moral and that they let us down if they show themselves to be politicians just as much as their male counterparts.

The poll results showed that most Australians were not convinced women should be placed on a leadership pedestal. Less than a third believed that the world would be more peaceful or more prosperous with more female leaders.

A third argument then assumes that women are on the whole no worse or better than men. Some female leaders may be informed by their experience as mothers; others won't. Some will be moral; others will not. The results suggest that most Australians agree with this position: 60% believe that having more female leaders would make no difference.

This suggests Australians may be working out that there is not one type of female leader, just as there is not one male type. The three women in the top five admired leaders (Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Aung Sang Suu Kyi) have very different backgrounds, style and focus.

This thinking should help women to be judged on their own merits and personal attributes rather than on their gender. Women should have the same opportunity to lead (badly or well) as their male counterparts. The world will benefit from adding their diversity, skills and life experience to the leadership talent pool.

Photo by the US Department of State.

How the Lowy Institute Poll works

In conjunction with the release of the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, Lowy Institute Poll Director Alex Oliver has recorded a podcast which explains the methodology used in the survey.

Alex speaks  with Sol Lebovic, who has provided independent advice and technical support to the Lowy Institute over the last six years. Sol is one of Australia's most distinguished pollsters, founding Newspoll in 1985 and directing it for more than two decades. Sol explains how the Lowy Institute Poll's sample size, sample selection and weighting methods provide a reliable and rigorous survey, representative of the views of the Australian public, with an error margin of approximately 3.1%. 

The full transcript of the podcast is available on the Lowy Institute website.

Foreign-investment anxiety revealed in Lowy Poll

I've just written on the widespread antipathy in Indonesia to foreign investment, and how it is colouring the presidential election campaign. I attributed this hostility to the historical experience of colonialism. Now the Lowy Institute's annual poll reminds us that a similar (if less pronounced) aversion also exists in Australia, without the excuse of centuries of foreign domination:

  • 60% of Australians oppose foreign investment in agriculture, ports and airports.
  • Smaller majorities oppose investment in Qantas (51%) and the National Broadband Network (52%).
  • Australians are divided on foreign investment in the resources sector (49% in favour, 48% against).

Will the foreigners do something harmful that Australian capitalists don't do? Do we gaze on green pastures filled with frolicking lambs and get a warm feeling from knowing they are owned by fellow Australians? Do we think foreign investment makes our economy more vulnerable to changes in foreign sentiment? Should we borrow more overseas rather than selling the farm (and the mine)?

The Lowy Poll doesn't shed much light on the deeper motivations behind the opinions. For better or for worse (probably the former), foreign investment policy is not determined by popular poll. But there are complex issues here, not least about whether the foreigners pay a fair share of the costs of running Australia; and whether a dominant investment position might possibly be translated into dominant influence on politics (in the way that the foreign-dominated mining sector managed to persuade the political system that the miners shouldn't pay a resource-rent tax).

What the Lowy Poll reminds us is that there has not been enough public debate to achieve the sort of support that should accompany these important policy choices.

Photo by Flickr user sofakingevil.

Lowy Institute Poll 2014

2014 marks the tenth year of Lowy Institute polling on Australia and the world. The 2014 Lowy Institute Poll includes a mix of fascinating new questions on issues such as who is Australia’s best friend in Asia and Canberra’s espionage practices, along with many of our established questions tracking trends over time including Australians’ views on democracy. The 2014 Poll alsoinvestigates concern about climate change, the role Government should play in reducing carbon emissions, attitudes to asylum seeker policy, and seeks Australians’ views on key countries such as the United States, China and Indonesia.

As the leading tracking survey on Australian foreign policy, the Lowy Institute Poll provides an independent, rigorous, reliable basis for understanding Australians’ attitudes to the world.  Fieldwork for the Poll was conducted between 12 and 27 February 2014.

To view and compare 10 years of data from the Poll, the LOWY INSTITUTE POLL INTERACTIVE tool is accessible by clicking here.