Australians very fearful of Islamic State and terrorism, Lowy poll finds

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s hardline stance on terrorism is feeding into a national concern about threats, this year’s Lowy poll indicates. AAP/Mick Tsikas

The Abbott government’s anti-terrorism pitch is tapping into and feeding a deep vein of national security fear in the Australian population, the Lowy Institute’s 2015 poll shows.

As the Coalition prepares to introduce to parliament a tough law to strip citizenship from dual nationals involved in terrorism, the poll shows the lowest feelings of safety among Australians in relation to world events in the 11 years it has run. The threat of terrorism is apparently the primary cause.

Fewer than one in four (24%) feel “very safe”, 18 points lower than the 42% who felt very safe in 2010. The total proportion who feel “safe” has dropped from 92% in 2010 to 80%.

Risks relating to terrorism ranked one, two and three when people were given a list of eight potential risks to Australia’s security in the next decade.

The highest ranking is “the emergence of Islamic State [IS] in Iraq and Syria”, with nearly seven out of ten (69%) rating this as a high risk to Australia’s security.

Terrorist attacks on Australians overseas (55%) and home-grown terrorism in Australia (53%) ranked second and third.

IS and terrorism raised far more fears than potential regional dangers. The possibility of “military conflict between the United States and China in Asia” ranked lowest among the threats listed. Only one in five people saw it as a high risk.

Just more than one-quarter (26%) rated as high risk to Australia’s security “maritime disputes between China and its neighbours in Asian territorial seas”.

A little under one-quarter (24%) saw a breakdown of law and order in Papua New Guinea as high risk. Potential epidemics such as ebola was seen as high risks by 22%.

In contrast, people are quite concerned about a cyber attack on Australian critical infrastructure, with 45% rating it a high risk.

The annual Lowy poll of 1200 was done in late February to early March, with supplementary polling extending into April-May.

In polling in April, most Australians (69%) supported Australia’s military involvement against IS; only 22% were against.

But 55% believed that Australian participation in military action against IS in Iraq increases the risk of terrorism in Australia now; 47% said it increased the risk “in the future”. About three in ten thought it made no difference to the threat, now or in the future.

On other issues the government is not doing as well.

“After more than a year in office, the Coalition government’s performance on its key policy platforms – turning back asylum seeker boats, improving the budget bottom line and reducing debt, and abolishing the carbon tax – appears to have left Australians unimpressed,” the poll says.

Asked to mark the government out of ten (where ten is excellent, five average and one very poor), people award the government 4.9 for handling the arrival of asylum seekers by boat.

The Coalition also scored 4.9 on managing the economy and 4 for managing the issue of climate change – the lowest score in the list.

It scored 5.9 for responding to the threat of terrorism, and 6 for representing Australia’s interests on the United Nations Security Council and the G20. The highest mark was received for maintaining a strong alliance with the US – 7.1.

The poll saw a big decline in economic optimism. While 63% are optimistic about Australia’s economic performance in the world over the coming five years, this is a fall of 13 points since 2013 and is 23 points lower than the peaks of 86% recorded in 2009 and 2010 at the height of the global economic crisis. “It is the single largest fall in optimism recorded in our poll since 2005.”

The poll found that Australians’ feelings towards Indonesia have fallen to their lowest level in eight years. Even before the execution of the two Australians “Indonesia registered a cool 46° on the Lowy Institute thermometer of feelings towards other countries [where 100° is the warmest rating]”.

The only time sentiment toward Indonesia has been around this low in the poll was in 2007 in the wake of the Schapelle Corby’s sentencing and Australia granting asylum to Papuans.

“Indonesia’s reading this year is eight points lower than the peaks of 54° in 2010, after the Australian visit of then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and again in 2012. This places Indonesia, in Australians’ eyes, on a par with Russia (45°) and Egypt (48°).”

People overwhelmingly (87%) believe Indonesia should do more to help Australia combat people smuggling; 85% say it should do more to combat the risk of Islamic terrorism.

Three-quarters (76%) agree that Australian prime ministers should work harder to develop personal relationships with their Indonesian counterparts.

With the Paris climate conference coming up at the end of this year, the 2015 poll has recorded the third consecutive rise in Australians’ concern about global warming.

In a tracking question put since 2006, 50%, up five points since 2014 and 14 points since 2012, now say “global warning is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”. But the number remains considerably lower than the 2006 peak of concern when 68% said this. 63% say the government should commit to significant emission reductions in the international climate negotiations so that other countries will be encouraged to do the same.

On what has recently become a hot topic – foreign investment in Australian residential real estate – 70% said Australia allowed too much of this investment from China.