Budget 2017: tell me what you really think
8 May 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user eak_kkk.

As is my habit when preparing for the Federal Budget, I’ve been going through public polling on attitudes to defence spending and other issues. Here’s a quick summary of what I found.

The importance that people attach to defence compared with other issues continues to decline. According to a Ray Morgan poll from late last year, only 4% of people said that terrorism/war/security issues were the most important facing Australia, compared with 37% who identified economic issues. Things were very different back in 2005, when 21% of people chose terrorism/war/security issues and only 14% economic issues. (Curiously, Australians rated terrorism/war/security issues as the most important issues facing the world in the 2016 survey.)

A similar result emerged from a March 2017 Ipsos poll, which asked people to identify the three most important issues facing Australia. Defence ranked 12th out of 19 possibilities, with only 9% of people including it. The top five responses were healthcare (35%), crime (28%), cost of living (27%), unemployment (26%) and housing (26%).

With a federal election completed last year, there was also another installment of the long-running Australian Election Study (AES) to digest. Consistent with the declining perception of the importance of defence, support for increased defence spending fell for the fifth election in a row. Back in 2001, more than 60% of respondents favoured higher defence spending, compared with fewer than 24% today. In terms of alternative areas for increased spending, defence fell behind health (67%), education (61%), old age pensions (53%), police and law enforcement (45%) and business and industry (27%).

In more positive news, the 2016 AES found that the number of people who agreed that Australia would be able to defend itself continued to trend upwards, from 15% in 1996 to 31% today. Similarly, the number of people who agree that Australia’s defence is stronger now than it was 10 years ago has grown from 39% in 2013 to 45% in 2016 (though significantly higher figures were recorded in 2004, 2007 and 2010). Perhaps the declining willingness to invest in Australia’s defence reflects, at least in part, growing confidence in the Australian Defence Force.

Despite the Morgan poll result, terrorism remains an issue in many people’s minds. Consider the ANU poll from July 2016 on attitudes to national security. When asked: ‘How concerned are you personally about yourself or a family member being the victim of a future terrorist attack in Australia?’, 16% of people said that they were very concerned, 29% somewhat concerned, 35% not very concerned, and 20% not at all concerned. That’s a 45–55% split between those expressing higher as opposed to lower levels of concern. In contrast, when asked ‘How concerned, if at all, are you about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in Australia?’, 71% said that they were somewhat or very concerned, and only 29% said that they weren’t too concerned or not at all concerned.

A series of Essential Media polls from 2014 to 2016 found that between 57% (September 2014) and 76% (November 2015) of respondents said that the risk of terrorism in Australia has increased. The most recent figure, from October 2016, was 73%. Not surprisingly, polls around that time by Essential Media and the ANU found consistent support for strong counterterrorism measures. For example, the ANU poll found that 67% of respondents supported data retention laws as justifiable measure to combat terrorism, while only 33% said those laws weren’t justified on privacy grounds.

Public support for Australia’s contribution to US-led operations in Iraq and Syria has varied since 2014. An Essential Media poll from late 2015 found that 32% of people favoured increased Australian military involvement and 19% favoured decreased involvement. By April 2017, the figures had effectively switched, to 18% favouring an increase and 32% a decrease. In each case, around 30% wanted no change and 20% didn’t know.

With the budget less than a week away, what might recent polling on defence and security issues say about the prospects for defence spending? Despite its hand-on-heart promise to boost spending to 2% of GDP, the relatively low priority accorded defence in public perception might create a temptation for the government. While that’s surely true, I think that there are also deeper and more crucial factors at play.

The government was returned in 2016 with a single seat majority. And recent state and federal elections have shown that the electorate is willing to turn on a dime if a government incurs its displeasure. What’s more, as the table below shows, the electorate has been steadily deserting the mainstream parties over the past decade.

Percent of votes cast to minor parties and independents in recent federal elections

2007 2010 2013 2017
House of Representatives (non-Labor/Coalition/Green) 6.74 6.93 12.42 12.91
House of Representatives (non-Labor/Coalition) 14.53 18.69 21.07 23.23
Senate (non-Labor/Coalition/Green) 10.72 13.46 23.54 26.29
Senate (non-Labor/Coalition) 19.76 26.57 32.19 34.94

Source: Australian Electoral Commission

Voter’s disenchantment with mainstream politics is a global trend. A January 2017 Ipsos poll across 23 advanced economies found that, on average, 81% of respondents had either ‘no confidence’ or ‘not very much confidence’ in their country’s political parties. Australia scored 79%. And cynicism is rife: an average of 63% of respondents agreed that their country ‘needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful’. In Australia, the figure was an alarming 71%. Finally, an average of 64% of respondents agreed that ‘traditional parties and politicians [in their country] don’t care about people like me’. The figure for Australia was a sobering 61%.

The risk is that the Federal government’s ability to resist populist demands will be diminished by its precarious electoral position—especially given the electorate’s demonstrated volatility and deepening dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. It’s no longer a question of whose turn it is to enjoy the perks of office. The major parties are fighting for their very survival. As a result, in the longer term the government may struggle to simultaneously placate a restive electorate and boost defence spending, let alone return the budget to surplus.