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Asylum-seekers still a concern: survey -

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ELEANOR HALL: In its annual survey of Australians' fears and perceptions of the world, the Lowy
Institute found that asylum seekers do remain a concern for the majority of Australians.

The survey was conducted in July this year and was released this morning in Sydney. It also
indicates that many Australians still have little understanding of countries in our region.

The survey was conducted by the Lowy Institute's Fergus Hanson. He joined me in the World Today
studio and I began by asking him what his survey revealed about Australian attitudes to asylum

FERGUS HANSON: Well it did show quite a high level of concern when people were asked are they
concerned or not concerned about asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat? Seventy-six per cent
of people said they were concerned either somewhat or a great deal. So quite a significant level
there, quite a surprising level of concern about this.

When they're asked to rank it in terms of a threat or a concern with other priorities it falls down
quite significantly, but when, just by itself, there is certainly quite a high level of concern

ELEANOR HALL: Is that higher than at the time of your last poll?

FERGUS HANSON: It tends to stay very stable that question. It's, so a slight increase there but
it's not sort of a staggering increase.

ELEANOR HALL: Now your poll indicates a number of areas where there seems to be a sort of
disjuncture between government policy and public opinion - there's asylum seekers, there's climate
change dropping down the list of priorities for the public despite the major policy focus on it,
then there's the economy. Did these results surprise you?

FERGUS HANSON: It's quite remarkable when you consider that we've just come out of the worst global
economic crisis since the Great Depression that 86 per cent of Australians feel optimistic or very
optimistic about Australia's economic performance over the next five years or so, and that's
actually the highest level of optimism we've ever recorded in the five years we've asked this
question, so really quite surprising.

ELEANOR HALL: And what's your sense of this disjuncture between government policy and public
opinion; do you think that government has a responsibility to reflect public opinion?

FERGUS HANSON: I think the importance of public opinion polling like this is that it sets bounds
and holds up a mirror both to society to see where Australian public opinion is but also to policy
makers really shows boundaries where it's quite difficult to move outside of. And in some sense I
think that's quite good and in other areas I think it can constrain us, so for example, we're
seeing a bit of a division now amongst the Australian public on attitudes towards China and I think
if those attitudes start to harden it could be quite difficult for the Government to act in China
and some areas for example in foreign investment.

ELEANOR HALL: What did you discover about Australians' attitudes to China?

FERGUS HANSON: Well it's really interesting about China is there's an overwhelming sense that China
is important to us economically. Sixty-three per cent of Australians said it was the most important
economy to Australia out of China, the United States and Japan. Now that doesn't really reflect the
facts on the ground because Japan is our largest trading partner, our third largest source of
investment so by rights it should probably be at the top there, but in fact only six per cent of
Australians thought it was the most important economy. So China...

ELEANOR HALL: Only six per cent?

FERGUS HANSON: Yeah. So China looms very large in terms of the economic perception of its weight
and influence in Australia. But besides the economic factors and a sense that China is rising,
there's an emerging division I think.

We asked people whether they thought China was or would become the leading power in Asia and 95 per
cent thought it would but those people were almost evenly split between people who were comfortable
about that and people who were uncomfortable. You had 40 per cent of people this year saying
China's rise was a critical threat to Australia's vital interests.

In terms of a military perception as well there was a large minority that thought China would be a
military threat or could be a military threat in the next 20 years but there was a majority, just a
majority, that thought it was unlikely. So an emerging sense that there's a bit of a split there
and an uncertainty about what the implications are of China's rise.

ELEANOR HALL: So is fear or apprehension about China increasing?

FERGUS HANSON: In our threats question, when we first asked the question about development of China
as a world power, do they see that as a critical threat or not, initially it was only 25 per cent
of people who said it was a critical threat in 2006. This year it was up to 40 per cent.

ELEANOR HALL: What are the biggest fears now for Australians?

FERGUS HANSON: The biggest fears in terms of threats is actually proliferation. It comes in as
number one.

ELEANOR HALL: Nuclear proliferation?

FERGUS HANSON: Exactly. And that's right at the top of the list and statistically in a dead heat is
international terrorism. Now the international terrorism I think isn't quite so surprising because
the field dates for the poll coincided with the attacks in Jakarta.

ELEANOR HALL: And you surveyed the levels of trust in regional powers. Indonesia still comes way
down the list. Is that because you conducted the survey at the time of the Jakarta bombing?

FERGUS HANSON: Well I think it's a bit more than that because if you look at our feelings
thermometer as well, Indonesia consistently gets a very lukewarm rating, this year at 49. So
there's a real blind spot there I think in the Australian public in terms of the, what's happened
in Indonesia in recent years - the democratic transition, the booming economy, the very close and
growing government-to-government links - but the majority of Australians don't trust Indonesia to
act responsibly in the world which is quite surprising.

ELEANOR HALL: And yet we're increasingly warming towards the United States?

FERGUS HANSON: Well that's been an interesting phenomena all of itself. The US has really rebounded
in Australia. People at the end of the Bush era were talking about decades or even a century before
the US would be able to recover the ground that had been lost in terms of its international
reputation but here in Australia, we're really talking about new record highs for feelings towards
the US - 83 per cent of people trusting the US to act responsibly in the world somewhat or a great

It's the most trusted country out of the seven on our list. Attitudes towards the ANZUS alliance
again at record highs and it's quite interesting to contrast that with the slight cooling that
we've seen in feelings towards China.

ELEANOR HALL: It's interesting that we still see the United States as our security saviour in the
next 20 years despite the fact that we're in the midst of an economic crisis which began in the
United States and there's a lot of talk of the United States' power declining in the world.

FERGUS HANSON: Yeah it's very interesting. Part of that could be the uncertainty in the, with the
power transitions going on in Asia. Part of it could be, of course, I think is the change in
administration in the White House.

ELEANOR HALL: Do you get a sense that Australians are any more comfortable with our position as a
nation here in Asia? We seem to be seeking very close links with powers like the United States.

FERGUS HANSON: Yeah it's very interesting looking at our attitudes towards different Asian
countries because in some sense we're very aware of the emerging powers for example, China and
India, but there are also some very curious blind spots and I think Indonesia is one of them.

Korea is another one where we have, it's our third largest export destination, it's a fellow
democracy and you would expect it to rate a little bit warmer on our thermometer scale but it
scores at sort of a 50, at a lukewarm sort of level.

And another country on our list that seems to be a bit of a blind spot to Australia is our largest
trading partner Japan, where only six per cent of Australians see it as the most important economy
to Australia at the moment.

ELEANOR HALL: Fergus Hanson thanks very much for coming in.

FERGUS HANSON: Thank you very much.

ELEANOR HALL: That's the Lowy Institute's Fergus Hanson, who conducted the institute's survey,
Australia and the World: Public Opinion and Foreign Policy.