One could “sniff the wind” and come up with similar responses to the Lowy Institute Poll 2013. But the poll does provide some detail, again showing a range of expected and occasionally surprising results on how the Australian public view our position in the world. No doubt a large proportion of Australia’s foreign policy experts will tut-tut, shake their heads and say the results explain why foreign policy is too important an issue to be left to the voters.
Perceptions on Indonesia are regularly held up as a case in point. Most Australians remain “lukewarm” towards Indonesia, which scores 53 on the Lowy “thermometer” scale. Most Australians (83%) say Australia is a good neighbour to Indonesia, but only 54% believe that Indonesia is a good neighbour to Australia. People smuggling stands out as the major issue, with only 30% saying that Indonesia helps Australia combat people smuggling.
Consistent with these broader views, there also remain persistent perceptions of Indonesia as a source of terrorism and a belief that Indonesia is a military threat. This is despite major efforts against terrorism within Indonesia and it never having had the capacity to meaningfully threaten Australia.
Only a third of Australians think Indonesia is a democracy, reflecting a range of competing images that are from time to time presented in Australia. Indonesia has had regular elections since 1999, but occasional reports of human rights abuses, corruption scandals and so on continue to sully the image of rule of law in Indonesia. There appears to be a non-articulated perception that “democracy” means more than just going to the ballot box every five years. This is consistent with a more “substantive”, as opposed to “procedural” understanding of democracy.
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About three-quarters of respondents were concerned about asylum seekers arriving by boat, despite an increased arrival rate. Older people appear more concerned about boat arrivals than younger people, although the issue does resonate across generations.
Not unreasonably, China was overwhelmingly identified (by 76% of respondents) as key to Australia’s economy, but the US was seen by more people (82%) as important to Australia’s security. However, 61% agree that China will eventually become the world’s major superpower. Related to this, most also believe that China will eventually become a military threat to Australia. But for the moment, Australians believe they can have their cake and eat it, too.
The Lowy report also surveyed perceptions on offshore processing (supported); action on climate change (more — 40% — say it is a problem and fewer — 54% — want to reverse the carbon tax), the Afghanistan war (61% say it is not worth fighting), WikiLeaks (58% support, down four percentage points) and terrorism, with 68% saying the government has struck the right balance.
Perhaps most disturbingly, though, was the result showing younger people are increasingly ambivalent about democracy. Only 39% of 19- to 29-year-olds agreed that democracy was preferable to any other form of government, and just over a quarter of all respondents said non-democracy could be preferable in some circumstances.
In this, perhaps in the current domestic political environment, voters have increasingly adopted Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that democracy is the worst form of government.
He qualified that statement, however, by adding “except for all the others”.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University