Australians are less likely to consider our alliance with the United States as being of vital national importance, today’s Essential Report shows, with those who consider it very important dipping below 44% for the first time since March 2011.

Overall, 84% of Australians consider the US alliance “very” or “quite” important to Australia. This is almost equal to the 82% who consider our alliance with China “very” or “quite” important. Australians have historically rated both relationships as crucial but have rated the American alliance as more important. Today’s Essential Report shows a narrowing of the importance voters place on the American alliance above all others. The number of voters who consider our relationship with the US “very important” has declined 9% since the last time the question was asked in October last year.

A certain fortress mentality can be detected in the declining importance voters placed on our relationships with all countries to which we are closely involved. Ratings given to the importance of relationships with all countries on which respondents were polled declined from the last poll, though the importance placed on our relationships with the United Kingdom and Indonesia suffered the largest falls — voters who considered the relationships “very important” were down 10% for both countries, to 38% and 22% respectively.

The poll was conducted between February 20 and 23, when public interest in the plight of convicted drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, on death row in Indonesia, was very high. Nonetheless, this doesn’t appear to have translated into Australians assigning importance to the relationship with Indonesia — quite the opposite has occurred. Asked how the Abbott government has handled the relationship with Indonesia, the number rating the government’s handling as good declined 8% to 24% since October, while the number rating the handling of the relationship as “poor” rose 3% to 42%. This represents a net decline in perceptions of the government’s handling of the relationship from -7% to -18%.

Today’s report also showed the first improvement in the government’s fortunes in the past four weeks. On voting intention, the two-party preferred metric shows a 53%-47% split to Labor — an improvement of 1% the Coalition’s way.

On economic matters, voter unease is shifting away from cost-of-living issues, and towards concern for the country’s debt. Compared with a year ago, concern about the cost of electricity and gas, food, wealth disparity, interest rates and tax levels all declined, while concern about the budget deficit and national debt rose markedly. One in four (27%) of voters said they were very concerned about national debt, with another 39% saying they were somewhat concerned.

Despite a growing number of voters being concerned about debt levels, however, the largest source of economic concern remains the cost of gas and electricity. Around half (47%, down from 57% in October) of voters said they were very concerned about this. Another 39% were very concerned about housing affordability.

Impressions of the government’s management of the economy have declined since October. One in three (34%) of voters said they considered the management of the economy as good, while 30% considered it poor. This is a decline of 5% in those who believed the economy is well-managed, and a rise of 2% in those who consider it poorly managed.