2019 is a year of elections in the Asia-Pacific region, including in Indonesia, India and Australia. Each of these three democracies has re-elected incumbents, choosing stability in difficult times.

Every day, the liberal international order seems less liberal, less international and less orderly. Both Washington and Beijing are seeking to revise the international status quo. Australia’s leadership role in the Pacific is being tested. Cracks in the international economy appear to be widening.

These issues were all but invisible, however, in the 2019 Australian federal election campaign. The world hardly intruded on our national debate. This is too bad. The rapid changes to Australia’s external circumstances deserve serious discussion.

Certainly, Australians are aware of developments abroad and some of their opinions on international issues are changing. Notably, Australians’ views towards China seem to have soured. In 2019, trust in and warmth towards China are at their lowest points in the Poll’s history. Most Australians say that Australia’s economy is too dependent on China and Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region. Scepticism continues about Chinese investment in Australia and China’s intentions in the Pacific. 

The pace of China’s rise and the presidency of Donald Trump both seem to be weakening Australians’ confidence in the United States. More Australians than in previous years believe that the United States is declining relative to China. Confidence in President Trump is at lower levels than confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping. Two-thirds of Australians believe that President Trump has weakened the alliance. On the other hand, more than seven out of ten Australians still believe the alliance is either very or fairly important for Australia’s security.

For the first time in the history of the Poll, climate change topped the list of threats to Australia’s vital interests in 2019, alongside cyberattacks, international terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear program. And although power blackouts and energy prices have dominated Australian headlines, policymakers may be surprised to find more Australians want the federal government to reduce emissions than prevent blackouts or keep prices down. 

Australians are optimistic on some subjects. While economic nationalism and concerns about globalisation are on the rise around the world, Australians remain firmly committed to free trade and globalisation. Australians look to New Zealand as our best friend in the world, and more of them have confidence in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to do the right thing in world affairs than any other world leader we asked about.

The Lowy Institute Poll, now in its fifteenth year, offers valuable insights into Australians’ views on the questions that preoccupy diplomats and world leaders. In other words, the Poll serves a democratic function. It helps us to understand how Australians see the world, and it gives Australians an opportunity to have their say on our country’s relationship with the world. 

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