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2011 Lowy Institute Poll


Fergus Hanson


27 June 2011 08:33

The seventh annual Lowy Poll was released today with findings covering everything from the intervention in Libya and WikiLeaks to threat perceptions about terrorism and nuclear power.  

But this year we also tried to drill a bit deeper into a few issues. One of these was the war in Afghanistan. At a big-picture level, opposition to the war has hit a record high, with 59% of adult Australians now opposed to our continued military involvement (the poll was taken before the string of recent deaths). 

Since 2008, a majority of Australians have opposed the war, so not surprisingly, a number of politicians have given speeches trying to make the case for it. Three major speeches over this period include one by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd immediately after the 2008 Lowy Poll results came out, one by then-Defence Minister John Faulkner at the Lowy Institute and one by Prime Minister Julia Gillard last November to Parliament. We tested the main arguments used in these speeches, as well as some others to see how persuasive Australians found them.

It turns out the main arguments used to justify the war don't convince most Australians. For example, in her November speech the Prime Minister said 'Australia has two vital interests in Afghanistan': ensuring it doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists who will then use it to launch attacks against Australians and to stand by the US. But the Lowy Poll found a majority of Australians disagree with both of these reasons for staying. 

Interestingly, there was one argument that convinced a majority of Australians and even a majority of opponents of the war that we need to stay: 'If Australia and its allies withdrew from Afghanistan, Afghan women might have their rights seriously violated by an extremist government'. This human rights argument has barely rated a mention by Australian politicians, so far.

Also on the security front, one of the most interesting results from the 2011 Lowy Poll was the finding on US military bases in Australia.

Last November at the 25th Australia-US Ministerial (AUSMIN), both sides agreed to set up a Force Posture Working Group to look at 'options for enhanced joint defence cooperation on Australian soil'. These reportedly included 'more US force training on Australian soil, more port visits, disaster relief co-operation and a greater US regional naval presence', although US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was reported as saying new bases were unlikely because the US had no wish to create 'political difficulties' in Australia.

However, the politicians appear to have misread public opinion on this. The Lowy Poll found 55% of adult Australians are in favour of allowing the US to base US military forces in Australia.

That's a fairly remarkable finding and could well reflect rising concern about the broader implications of China's rise (this year, some 44% of Australians say it is likely that Australia's largest trading partner, China, will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years).

While there is not going to be any formal document stemming from the Force Posture Review, this finding should help create the political space for consideration of a more ambitious range of options as discussions on this issue continue. 

The full 2011 Lowy Poll can be downloaded from the Lowy Institute website. You can follow Fergus on Twitter @FergusHanson.