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Jun 11, 2012

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What do Australians believe about the economy? What do we believe the role is for government in our society and its economy today? Do our beliefs match our actions – or better still, are our beliefs and expectations of government even consistent from one topic to the next, let alone consistent between our broad ideals and what we actually believe when we focus on any given specific issue?

But more importantly, just how representative are those voices in our national debate that so often claim to speak on our behalf – that so often claim to represent the views we supposedly believe in as a population?

What follows is a walk through the national mindset as we have collectively revealed it to be over the last 6 months in polling. Some of you will be rejoice over what turns up, others will be horrified – all of you will probably have a chuckle at some of the paradoxes involved  – yet whatever your perspective, it certainly helps explain some of the underlying dynamics of our national disgruntlement.  The 30 odd poll results here mention the pollster and the date the polls were taken at the bottom and all have sample sizes about 1000 for a margin of error around the 3% mark.

First up – what do we see as the role of government? (click to expand)

Adding some texture to this and focusing on some specific policy areas (click to expand):

As a country, we believe not only in an active government, but we also believe that our governments are doing too little in providing  the public services we demand. Health, public transport infrastructure, education – even holding banks and financial institutions to account (keep this in your thought orbit, as it will feed into some important themes later) – all show the public desire for more government action.

Yet this is where the first paradox occurs. What do we believe about the size of government?

Think about that for a minute. The largest response, a plurality of the population, believes that government is too large, yet clear majorities want government to do more on health, education, public transport and bank regulation – while a plurality wants the government to do more on crime protection and pollution regulation.

But let’s not stop there – if government is too large, do we believe that things like industry assistance for car manufacturing is part of the largesse problem?


Clearly not. Worth noting here is that this question didn’t ask  about current levels of assistance, but *additional* assistance. Support is not only strong, but bipartisan – with only Greens voters not reaching an outright majority for more government expenditure on car manufacturing.

But is this view of ours isolated to just assistance for car manufacturing, perhaps as some peculiar  cultural security blanket we’ve developed for Australian made motor vehicles?

Or course not! We support giving assistance to other manufacturing sectors at a higher rate than we do for the motor vehicle industry. What is also interesting to note is that while 55% of Coalition voters believed government is too large, 66% of them believe in what can only be described as high levels of industry support – and do so at a rate higher than ALP voters.

The “size of government” paradox in Australia is quite something – while we believe government is too large as some broad, abstract motherhood statement, we also want it to be that size or even larger whenever we focus on a specific issue. As we shall see later on, it just doesn’t stop at industry assistance or the usual list of public services, but covers a vast policy playing field.

So what then do we currently think of the economic reform program of the past 30 years – a program that reduced industry protection and the role of government in large areas of the economy? More to the point, *who* do we believe that reform program benefited?

Note the similarity between ALP and Coalition voters here – a bipartisan belief set.

With a clear majority of us believing that corporations received most of the benefit of the reform program, it’s worth looking at the support levels of individual reforms – they start to tell a story.

A majority believe that privatising Telstra was bad for Australia, a plurality believe that privatising Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank weren’t exactly crash hot ideas for the country either. GST, free trade agreements and floating the dollar – miscellaneous policy stuff – all received plurality support for being a good outcome, while compulsory superannuation and Medicare enjoy massive levels of community support.

What we start to see is that Australians like governments owning things and privatisation is still poisonous (as Anna Bligh and Andrew Fraser found out in Qld). This also becomes apparent when we start talking about banks:

A clear majority of Australians would support establishing a government owned bank!

Yet, we also see enormous levels of support for bank regulation of various forms – from interest rates to salary caps to fee regulation, while even supporting a super profits tax on our banking sector.

So taking a recap, we support the idea of small government – but only as a broad motherhood statement since we can’t find any area we would actually like government to become smaller in. We believe that government isn’t doing enough on public services like health, education and public transport infrastructure. We support industry assistance, we support government owning things and oppose privatisation. We believe that the economic reform program didn’t benefit ordinary Australians and that most of the benefits went to corporations. We also believe that, at least so far as banks are concerned, we don’t appear to have much trust in those corporations and are more than willing to regulate their activities and behaviour far, far more than we currently do.

What amused me recently was how many folks were surprised at the results of a recent Essential Report question on “Class Warfare”.

A plurality of respondents sided with the government on this – which surprised people – including a majority of support among those earning less than $600 per week and a plurality of those earning more than $1600 per week.

But we also need to keep in mind that this question was framed in terms of a partisan contest between Government and Opposition. When one side of politics has a big lead over the other, what we find happens (not occasionally, but as a general rule) is that the side with the big leads gets a boost to the results of the side of the argument they are supporting.

Far from this result being a surprise, the results were highly likely to have been boosted for the Opposition. If you removed partisan identification in the question and asked it again, you would very likely have had a large, clear majority of support for the underlying proposition in the question – that of hitting the extremely wealthy and large corporations with taxes to ensure that all Australians get their cut of the benefits.

A good example of the prominence of this type of belief can be seen in the results of a question that asked about a how return to surplus should be paid for.

If you have to have a surplus, increasing taxes for large corporations and reducing tax breaks for wealthy individuals gained clear majorities of support – majorities across political cohorts.  It’s also interesting that the two ideas with the lowest levels of support were cutting welfare – to the unemployed and disabled gaining the least support, and middle class welfare getting the second lowest support rate.

Further on this theme of the way Australians perceive large corporations  – particularly in the banking and finance sectors – we had this question about what is often described as a Tobin Tax

Again, a clear majority of support for higher levels of taxation on this sector.

Yet it isn’t only the big guys on the block where Australians support more government  intervention and regulation – it’s a fairly broad canvas. To give an idea of the general zeitgeist involved here:

This poll result could also be called A Nightmare on Collins Street – home of the Institute of Public Affairs 😛 If it moves, we appear to be pretty happy to regulate it, often enthusiastically so.

One of the particular areas of regulation that gain a lot of attention in public debate is that of the labour market – particularly penalty rates of late.


Again we see robust bipartisan support levels for weekend penalty rates.  Just as we believed the benefits of our previous economic reform program went mostly to corporations, we also believe that the benefits of labour market flexibility have mostly gone to employers, rather than employees – but with a twist:

A clear majority believe that employers are getting the most benefit, including majorities across the voting spectrum. The twist? Part time workers – the very group falling largely into the casual work category – have the lowest level of belief that casualisation mostly benefits employers.

On the question of whether employers should be required to provide more permanent jobs:

Here we still get a plurality of support, with Coalition voters the only major cohort opposed to such regulation.

So taking another recap – we support the idea of small government, but only as a broad motherhood statement since we can’t find any area we would actually like government to become smaller in. We believe that government isn’t doing enough on public services like health, education and public transport infrastructure. We support industry assistance, we support government owning things and oppose privatisation. We believe that the economic reform program didn’t benefit ordinary Australians and that most of the benefits went to corporations. We don’t appear to have much trust in those corporations and are more than willing to regulate their activities at a higher level than we currently do, including increasing their tax burden. We also believe that labour market flexibility has mostly benefited employers and that those employers should be required to provide more permanent jobs.

The story is starting to build – so what about foreign investment, particularly the types of foreign investment that will become increasingly important issues in Australia?

Australians have never been particularly fond of the idea of foreign investment and this year’s Lowy Poll asked a question that encapsulated this bugbear of ours with another – who owns our farm land.

The collision was quite something:

Not only were 81% of us opposed to our government allowing foreign companies to buy our farmland, 63% of us reacted strongly against it.

Increasingly, the source country for such investment in our agriculture is China – so what are our perceptions of Chinese investment?

A clear majority of Australians believe that our government is allowing too much investment from China. When explored further and those 56% were asked an additional set of questions, this is what we got:(click to expand)

You could write an entire thesis from those results. But it’s pretty consistent with the world view we have about our economy and the role of government generally. If we don’t particularly like or trust large domestic corporations such as the banks, big foreign controlled ones are on a hiding to nothing.

So keeping all that in mind – the broad picture of what we believe about the government and what role we believe the government should play in our economy – let’s turn now to our current views about the economy and our expectations of it over the next 12 months. These were taken in the few  weeks before the latest national accounts figures were released.

Even though we are pessimistic, a plurality of us are satisfied with our current financial situation – almost a mirror image of the above result:

When asked about the state of the economy *compared* to other countries – we acknowledge that Australia is doing comparatively well


Yet when asked simply about the state of the Australian economy in an absolute sense– with no reference to other countries – we get a very different result:

Only around half as many people that believe we are doing well *comparatively*, believe we are doing well *absolutely*.

But if we change the question again, use international comparisons as context and add information about our unemployment rate, inflation rate and interest rates – the recognition level of the state of the Australian economy being “good” lifts substantially.


It’s almost as if there’s a substantial proportion of us that know the economy is good, but don’t really want to admit it unless we almost have to – which brings us to a funny little poll question worth mentioning on interest rates.

Only  35% of the country believe  the correct answer – despite interest rates being the largest and most consistent economic talking point in the media cycle – and where not a single political cohort could reach a majority on that correct answer.

Finally, keeping in mind our general pessimism and our views on government assistance to industry – what are our views on government assistance towards each other? We already know that cutting unemployment benefits/disability support payments and middle class welfare were the two least supported options when it came to funding a return to surplus.

Firstly, we believe in means testing – at least as a motherhood statement roughly equivalent in vigour to our belief in small government:


Over two thirds of us believe in means testing government subsidies with clear majorities across all political cohorts. But moving beyond the general ideal – what do we believe about a particular subsidy, like, say, the private health insurance rebate?



Quite the collapse. Also worth noting is the result by income.

Similar to the way we support the idea of small government until it comes to finding some piece of government we actually believe should be smaller  – we support the idea of means testing subsidies until the point comes where we are actually getting means tested on something.

Of course, this subsidy issue – being a partisan divide – has an appropriately large gap on the differences:

Not that hypocrisy has a partisan lean – keep in mind that if the political roles were reversed, so too would be the results.

What comes out from this broad snapshot is that what Australians believe about the role of government in our society and economy isn’t necessarily what our institutions believe or practice, and probably hasn’t been for a while. Our beliefs as a country are certainly far removed from many participants in the national debate that pretend to speak on behalf of our population and on behalf of our interests.

Whatever the faults, foibles or otherwise of these national beliefs – and this isn’t an exercise in either support of, or opposition to them – our national debates on the role of government in our society and economy are becoming increasingly isolated from what the majority of the country actually believes.

Our public debates assume that the benefits of privatisation have reached a conclusion – the public believes that privatisation was and is a catastrophe and that government should own a larger sector of the economy because we trust government more than large private sector corporations.

Our public debates assume that smaller government and less regulation is universally beneficial – the public supports substantially higher levels of regulation on just about any topic you care to name and struggles to find something they’d like the government to become smaller in.

Our public debates assume that economic reform has been such an obviously beneficial thing to ordinary Australians that it no longer needs explaining – the public believes that corporations took all benefits of that reform, leaving  them with little more than a casualised workforce and reduced job security.

If we keep having our national debates like this – excluding  larger and larger sections of our population and ignoring what they believe – they won’t be national debates, we’ll just be talking among ourselves generating ever increasing quantities of public opprobrium, contempt and general unhinging. If you haven’t noticed – this is where we are at right now.

Our national debates need more participants and institutions talking with and to the public, acknowledging what they believe, explaining the increasing complexity of the world and bringing the population along with them in the debate through persuasion. What we have now – a political system struggling to be heard calmly, institutions talking among themselves and a bunch of vested interests shouting and threatening everything that moves – let alone a media unsure of how to be a constructive participant anymore – it will only end in grief.

As a country we have an unparalleled opportunity right in front of us – not only in deciding the type of society we want to be, but having the capacity to generate the wealth we need to solve any and all of our problems. It would be a tragedy if we fucked this up because some of us refused to acknowledge how important it actually is to bring the public along with us.










Possum Comitatus — Editor of Pollytics

Possum Comitatus

Editor of Pollytics

Political Commentator and Blogger

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49 thoughts on “What Australians Believe

  1. Possum Comitatus

    Mr Ormonde (this is all weirdly formal!)

    I have no problems at all with Essential – and here’s the quick answer.

    Let’s have a quick history of polling:

    After WW2 (actually before, but in Australia polling started to expand in the post war boom with Morgan/Gallup) polling was face to face (people went and knocked on doors) or occasionally a mailout (people stuffed polls in letter boxes – but it wasnt cost effective and was soon junked)

    The former targeted not the entire population, but something close to a representative sample of the Australian population – e.g suburbs and towns and areas that collectively were a representative subset of the Australian population. They then took a sample from that subset for their poll, then weighted it to reflect the demographics of the Australian population as a whole. They faced the same non-response problem that all pollsters do – the “thanks, but no thanks – I have to go and wash the cat” response.

    Then landline phones became widespread.

    The problem faced with landline phones was that a large proportion of households didn’t have one. The problem today is that a growing proportion of households don’t have one as they’re mobile phone only households.

    So phone pollsters don’t take a random sample from the whole public, they take a random sample from those households with landline phones – a generally representative subset of the Australian population – and then weight by demographics to reflect the Australian population as a whole. A sample of a subset just like face to face polling.

    Also like face to face polling, they too suffer from non-response rates…. the “thanks, but no thanks – I have to go and wash the cat” issue.

    Now we have the internet.

    Instead of polling the entire population, they recruit a large pool of people by offline means to create a generally representative subset of the Australian population. From this subset (like phone polling and face to face before it used population subsets), pollsters then take a sample from it. Again, like phone polling and face to face before it, they then weight the sample to reflect the Australian population as a whole. Also like phone polling and face to face before it, they too have the “thanks, but no thanks – I have to go and wash the cat” issue, with the only difference being that people don’t actually have to make up a particular excuse for not wanting to do the poll….. they just ignore the offer.

    Each of the methods have their own unique statistical problems to overcome on the *representativeness* of both the population subsets and the polling samples they take from those subsets – each of the methods have generally overcome them.

    Let’s take a different angle:

    Let us assume that some new technology allowed us to actually take a perfect random sample from the 15 million adult citizens in Australia.

    What would be the difference between that result, compared to a poll that took a sample from a 1 million large subset of that 15 million population that was also perfectly representative of those 15 million adult citizens?

    For all regular sample sizes generally used for polling – 600 to 2500 – effectively nothing.

    Instead of 1 million, what if it was 500,000? Again, effectively nothing – maybe 1 percent every few polls, but also indistinguishable on any given poll comparison between the two because of the random noise that is generated with every poll as a consequence of poll results being probability distributions.

    Now what about 150,000?

    Here we could expect a difference. Instead of an MoE of 3% that we get from a given sample size, we might be looking at one of 4% for the same sized sample.

    The problem isnt the mean of the result (the point estimates that we call “poll results”), it’s in the fatter tails of the probability distribution. The problem isn’t *bias*, it’s increased gaussian uncertainty.

    For example: Let’s say we wanted to know the propotion of the population that has ever washed their cat – but we also know that 60% of the population had, in fact, washed a cat in their life. Let us use a sample of 1067, to give us a hypothetical margin of error of exactly 3%

    95% of the time (using standard alphas):

    The perfect random sample (that only exists hypothetically) will get an answer within 3% of the accurate 60% result, but more likely being closer to 60 than 61/59 or 62/58 or 63/57 – the shape of the probability distribution involved

    The phone poll will get an answer within 3.5% to 4% of that accurate 60% result in best practice – again, with the result more likely to be closer to 60% than results 3.5% to 4% either side of 60%

    The online panel like Essential will get an answer within 4 to 4.5% of the accurate 60% result – again, with the result more likely to be closer to 60% than results 4% to 4.5% either side of 60%

    So yes – “we” seriously.

    There’s more to it than that – but that’s the quick answer.

  2. eddieward

    “…we’ll just be talking among ourselves generating ever increasing quantities of public opprobrium, contempt and general unhinging.”

    Well, you can put me down for the opprobrium and contempt and I’ll take the general unhinging as part of a job lot. For the last twenty years i have constantly been gobsmacked by the gulf between the media-politico commentariat (I used to campaign/work in) and the real world I lived, drank, played cricket, laughed and rooted in.

    In the end I quit political journalism and went to work sorting mail at night for Australia Post on less than the minimum wage (it’s all part time, see – Post drank the workplace reform Kool-Aid and have all their new staff working 25 hour per week shifts). And as cold as it gets sleeping in your car in winter in Canberra the worst day at Australia Post is better than the best day I ever spent in fifteen years working for mags/unions/pollies. Better people. Bigger hearts. Wiser brains.

    This is what people mean by ‘a real job’.

    But nothing will change because the media-politico complex moves in its own universe (something I noticed in Young Labor in the Eighties – now these people are running the country!) and this system is not about helping the working stiffs that make up the great mass of the populace in the western world – George Monbiot is across this stuff. Read him, and don’t waste your time on beauty contes…errr…polls.

    I could have told you the shit above (and probably did if you ever met me) for a beer at any stage in the last twenty-five years. If you need a poll to explain it to you then you are not functioning in the real world.

  3. Bo Gainsbourg

    This is a really great article, pulling together a lot of what has I think been notable about Australian politics and the last 30 years. I’m amused that many people see this as the population wanting to have their cake and eat it. It seems to me there is very little that is inconsistent in these polls. People have seen the deregulatory and privatising environment, they are very clear that it has benefited corporations most, they are willing to see more tax paid by high income earners and corporations and more regulations and more government activity. Despite the onslaught and virtually wall to wall media consensus that the public is ‘wrong’ on these issues for the last 30 years the public are, in fact, not stupid. That this can be interpreted as only a failure to ‘sell’ market reforms is really beyond belief. They have had this version of reform sold down their necks by both major parties for the last 30 years and its still ongoing. Even decent guys like George Megalogenis don’t seem to get that most people very clearly understand these deregulatory reforms are not benefiting them but rather an economic set of elites. They want more fairness, more progressive taxation, more sharing of benefits. The fact that every time the Greens make a mild reform pronouncement in this direction its either shrieked at by major media outlets as economic lunacy or ignored in part explains why they don’t have more votes. They actually have to battle a hostile media filter across all platforms to get their message through to voters. What is fascinating is the view of so many so called market reformers that the views of the public are to be either ignored, got around, or simply subject to more PR onslaught rather than listened to on this. This is why the Labor party is in such deep trouble, its fine for the Liberals to screw the majority of the popuolation, they are proud of it, that’s their job, but people keep expecting Labor to stand up to corporations and represent fairness. Not in a reluctant apologetic way, while promising industry more of what they want, but in a robust way. Hence people think that if Labor are going to support deregulation and privatisation and unrestricted foreign ownership (Craig Emerson, Martin Ferguson and the PM on occasion) then what do they stand for. IF you are the Greens battling to get through the autofilter of the media which maintains the community should just suck it up then you are clearly up against it. I think commentators have to start realising that their job should be to question some of the fundamental tenets of the economic lines they are pushing rather than simply assuming that ‘what business wants’ is also unquestionably good for the people who have to live in the economy. Exhibit one is the way people automatically assuming that a shrinking tax base is good. Its not, its in fact why the Euro countries are in shocing debt, at least partly, because all commentators say shrinking the tax base is good and they attack anyone who wants to increase it. High taxing countries, spending judiciously, regulating tightly and using government to achieve social goods are supported strongly by Australians. And so they should be.

  4. Dr_Tad

    An excellent round-up of the data, Poss. I’ll make three comments:

    (1) Questions around what is “good for Australia” I think are generally misleading. They obscure the class differences in perception that some of the other poll questions bring out more sharply. I felt that some of your “Australian exceptionalism” argument last year fell into this same trap by looking at absolute changes in income and not breaking it down in terms of social relativities (or the differential effects inflation has depending on what you spend your income on at different income levels, which Mike Beggs took up in this article:http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-206/feature-mike-beggs/ ).

    (2) Questions about the size of government have a long history of coming out like this in polls, in part because there is a perception of the government failing to do the right thing, or spending revenue on things respondents don’t like. We’ve been through 30 years of relatively high spending governments that have simultaneously run down (and/or) privatised public provision of socially useful services, while at the same time partially “compensating” through cash/tax handouts or subsidies to private services of the sort that Howard was so fond of deploying and which Labor has done little to wind back. This can create deep distrust in bigger government because there is a feeling that the tax & spend has gone to the wrong things (I’d certainly argue it has).

    (3) The most striking Essential poll result is the recent one looking back at the reform era, because it asks about the perceived class-specific effect of the reforms, not just whether they were “good or bad for the country”. This is important because one can believe “the country” has benefited in some abstract sense (like its international competitiveness or whatever) yet at the same time think ordinary people did badly out of it. George Megalogenis’ recent book celebrates this and calls for more sacrifice from ordinary people, but that doesn’t seem to be how most punters see it!

    It seems to me that in the 1980s the political class *was* able to bring the population with them (with a lot of help from the ACTU), to sacrifice for the sake of restoring corporate profitability with the promise of long-term good for all. I would argue that even if they connected with the sentiments expressed in these polls, today our politicians would be faced with a double problem: First, that few people would think they were to be trusted and, second, that even fewer would be happy to go along with another journey along the road of economic rationalist reform (or, more likely, straight austerity) with the promise of a reward sometime distant in the future. Europe should serve as a stark warning on that front.

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