Propaganda works – well up to a point anyway

The latest Lowy Institute Poll reflects a range of complicated and confusing Australian reactions to our place in the world; the threats we face; and what we think we should do about them.

The top line results suggest the constant propaganda from the Murdoch media, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Peter Hartcher of Nine Newspapers is convincing Australians to be afraid of China but there are also significant hints that the combined histrionic hyperbole is causing a few doubts.

64% of Australians see the prospect of a military conflict between the US and China over Taiwan as a critical threat yet fewer Australians see China’s foreign policy (59% – down six points since last year) as a critical threat.

Three quarters of the sample think the alliance with the US makes it more likely for us to be drawn into a war with Asia while 61% thinks the US alliance makes us safer from attack or pressure from China. In other words, more people think we might get dragged into a war by the US than think the US will keep us safe.

As for the much vaunted AUKUS deal 49% think it will keep us safer; 51% that the Quad will do the same; but 52% say the sub deal will make no difference or are unsure of its impact and almost half don’t think the program is worth the estimated cost. What that percentage will be after the cost, as it inevitably will, spiral out of control is another question.

As far as the public is concerned cyber threats from other countries top the list of our fears while perception of threats from Russia and China receding.

Overall, our feelings of safety are declining – from 91% feeling safe about world events in 2005 to 63% in 2023. It was as low as 50% in 2020 and then up to 70% the year after to slip to 50% a year later and then bounced back again to 63% in 2023.

On firm conclusion from it all is that Australian attitudes to the world have bounced around, declined and are on the mend again.

When asked about threats to our vital interests in the next decade cyberattacks from other countries top the list followed by a Taiwan military conflict and North Korea’s nuclear program which would make Kim Il Jong happy but puzzle some of us about where Australians get their information.

The rest of the list, in order, are China’s foreign policy; climate change; a severe global downturn; Russia’s foreign policy; rise of authoritarian governments around the world; international terrorism; political instability in the US; and COVID-19 and other potential epidemics.

Enthusiasts for the US alliance might be a bit put off by some Australian attitudes to it. Back in 2011 73% of the sample thought Australia’s alliance with the US made it more likely Australia would be drawn into a war in Asia that would not be in Australia’s interests.

This dropped in 2015, bounced back in 2019 with the election of the Morrison Government and has now settled at about three quarters of respondents.

However, our long term record of getting involved in any wars big brother (whether the British or the US) wants us to fight in has had a lasting impact on opinion.

The respondents don’t seem to have a lot of faith in the US’ future role and influence as a world leader. Only 22% think the US will play a more important and powerful role as a world leader in a decade’s time. The figure for China is 61%.

There is a flip side to this in that 75% of the sample (29% very likely and 46% somewhat likely) think China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.

In the event of a war over Taiwan 42% (down 4% since 2022) think we should support the US in the war and – in what would be a shock to successive Liberal PMs – 80% think we should accept Taiwanese refugees.

Most importantly though is the research on how Australians think about how safe they are in the context of world events. Back in 2005 91% felt safe. This fell to 50% with only 4 % feeling very safe in 2020 thanks to COVID.

Now 63% feel safe although only 6% feel very safe.

What does it all mean? Probably that the propaganda is working on a population already rattled by the pandemic but that we don’t want our governments to rush off to war at the behest of  the US, ASPI or Peter Hartcher.