The latest quarterly Australian National University poll on various aspects of public opinion was released earlier this week, this one targeting attitudes to government and government services, as well as asking its usual question on the most important problems facing the country. The poll is derived from a weighted sample of 2001 respondents to phone polling conducted between September 5 and 18, and boasts a margin of error of 2 per cent.
Satisfaction with the the way democracy works in Australia produced the same results as obtained from the ANU’s Australian Election Study survey after last year’s election, with 73 per cent satisfied and 27 per cent not satisfied. Last year’s result marked a plunge from 86 per cent satisfaction recorded after the 2007 election, which was part of an apparent peak recorded in the middle of the previous decade. The report notes that of 29 advanced democracies surveyed in the 1990s, only the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and the United States had higher levels of satisfaction with democracy than Australia (I suspect the mentality at work in the latter country differed from the first three).
The public appears to have soured on the federal tier of government since 2008, when 40 per cent of respondents were receptive to an expansion in federal power. This time it’s at 30 per cent, with opposition up from 39 per cent to 50 per cent. Western Australia stands out among the state breakdowns, recording only 18 per cent support compared with 29 to 35 per cent for the other states. The current results still compare favourably with 1979, the previous occasion when an ANU survey had posed the question, when 17 per cent were supportive against 66 per cent opposed.
Respondents were a lot more inclined to believe taxes, unemployment and especially prices had gone up since Labor came to power than they were to believe that health, education and living standards had improved. In the case of prices, this is incontestably correct: the inflation rate may be a different matter, but this isn’t what was asked. However, 58 per cent believed prices had risen a lot, which is probably untrue in historical terms. The figures for unemployment offer an even more telling insight into voter psychology, with only 19 per cent believing it had done anything so boring as remain the same, which it essentially has. Forty per cent believed it had increased against 29 per cent who thought it had decreased, which no doubt tells you something significant about the government’s fortunes.
A trend of recent years has been maintained with higher support recorded for increased social spending (55 per cent in the current poll) than for reduced taxes (39 per cent). The report notes that opinion on government spending tends to be both secular in that it is largely unrelated to partisan debates and changes in government and cyclical in that it is responsive to broader economic conditions. Contra John Maynard Keynes, it seems that national electorates are more likely to favour spending on social services and welfare when economic conditions are benign. Tax cuts are preferred to government spending to stimulate the economy during downturns.
The policy areas in which respondents most wanted more money to be spent were education (81 per cent want more spending) and aged pensions (71 per cent), with unemployment the only area where more wanted spending cut (33 per cent) than increased (20 per cent). Small businesses (66 per cent) beat people on low incomes (52 per cent) as most deserving of tax relief, with mining companies, banks and companies which produce carbon pollution essentially tied for least deserving (in each case 59 per cent thought they paid too little tax). Somewhat bewilderingly, all revenue-generating measures suggested to respondents recorded very strong support, and while a carbon tax on the 500 largest polluting companies was the least popular of the seven, it still had 63 per cent approval and 34 per cent disapproval.
As always, respondents were asked to identify the two most important problems facing Australia today. Following the previous poll in July I produced a chart plotting the progression of this series since April 2008. If that were updated with the current results it would show economy/jobs continuing to trend upwards (37 per cent rated it first or second, up from 34 per cent) and better government jerking sharply upwards from 14 per cent to 26 per cent, taking third place behind a stable immigration (down a point to 31 per cent).
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