What we really think

Photo of Timothy Devinney, photo by Joanne Saad

Timothy Devinney, photo by Joanne Saad

In summary: 
  • New research reveals environmental sustainability and international security of only ‘middling’ importance to Australians
  • Top three concerns are food and health, local crime and public safety, and rights to basic services
  • The research outcomes hold particular relevance for politicians and policy makers

Politicians may pronounce global warming the greatest moral dilemma of our time, but ask everyday Aussies what they really think is important and the answers may surprise.

A study from the Anatomy of Civil Societies Research Project at UTS has shown Australians value local issues over global concerns, and that Australian society is significantly more conservative than many of us may be willing to admit.

Led by UTS Business School’s Professor of Strategy Timothy Devinney, the study, titled ‘What Matters to Australians: Our Social, Political and Economic Values’, is funded by the Australian Research Council. It studied over 1500 Australians in 2007 and 2011 and their reaction to issues of salience, or importance, in their everyday lives.

The top three concerns of Australian people were food and health, local crime and public safety, and rights to basic services. Global issues like environmental sustainability and international security appeared only as middling importance on the list of issues about which respondents felt concern.

The outcomes of the study provide a fascinating snapshot of Australian society which, despite a reputation for being a fun-loving, laid back nation, is actually a fairly conservative society with an eye for issues that are close to home. 

"It’s conservative in the sense that the things that matter are closer to the individual. The saying goes all politics are local and that is seen in these results – most of the issues people are concerned with are local issues,” explains Devinney.

The study uses a unique variant of best/worst scaling, a choice measurement method. It asks participants to make simple choices amongst groups of options, allowing for better estimation of trade-offs. It has significant advantages when compared to traditional polling or surveying methods, particularly in the case of emotive social issues.

“When we were testing the study methodology, one of the things we did was to ask a panel of 400 people to use our best/worst instrument to answer a series of questions, and then to complete some surveys based on rankings and ratings,” says Devinney.

What the team found was that typical polling methods were uninformative – respondents claimed all the listed issues mattered to them, without being able to effectively determine which mattered more than the others. 

“With a traditional polling method, if I came to you and said, ‘Do you care about the environment?’ you’d say, ‘Of course I care about the environment’. But if I then came to you and said, ‘You have a choice – the choice is that we can cut back a bit on your children’s schooling, say $50 a child, and we can put that money into a subsidy for solar energy, or we can forget about the subsidy and keep the money in schools. What do you think?’, you are now forced to think about which of the two options you value more; and that’s when we begin to see where people’s priorities really lie.”

The participants in the study were a representative sample of Australians over the age of 18. The study sought to capture information about their voting and political activities, religious beliefs and practices, and donating and volunteering practices, as well as information about their general and life satisfaction.

“What we found was that there was very little variety in preference across the demographic spectrum in terms of the issues people identified as being salient to them. Where people are normally expecting to see a difference in the attitudes of rich and poor, male and female, and young and old people, there was actually very little variation,” says Devinney.

“It was interesting to note Australians, as a whole, are probably much more like-minded than they might think when it comes to identifying issues they see as being critical to their lives and wellbeing.”
The findings were also consistent across international samples in Germany, the UK and the USA that were examined as part of the same study.

“The consistency across countries is pretty high. What’s at the top, what’s at the bottom of the list of salient issues is pretty similar across countries.”

The research outcomes hold particular relevance for politicians and policy makers who are regularly swayed by public opinion polls that may not provide accurate information.

“Every politician in any country where there is even moderately thriving democracy is poll-paranoid. What they want to know is what really matters to their constituents,” Devinney says.

“So the use of polling instruments that are inaccurate in some ways creates a serious problem in terms of making policy based on those poll results. You want to give the policy makers valuable, legitimate information. 

“For example, one of the most critical outcomes from this study was the Australian attitude towards environmental issues. Despite numerous public opinion polls showing strong support, our study showed these issues have actually taken a significant fall in terms of how highly they are valued.

“This is important because as a politician, you want to create a portfolio of things in which the government should be active because the population is interested in these things.”

The study was launched in Melbourne at the State Library of Victoria on 3 May, and at the UTS Aerial Function Centre on 4 May. International results will be released later in the year.

“This is important because as a politician, you want to create a portfolio of things in which the government should be active because the population is interested in these things.”

From the quote above, I believe the Government should look at the opinions of the people, but also still maintain a ideal that will lead the population into an era where they are grateful for the decisions of the government. They should try to balance both sides of the coin, almost impossible I must admit, but still worth giving a go !

Very interesting, glad that the polling method was described. I've seen bad research methods create almost meaningless results because they never help prioritise. Now, here's something we can use.

Perhaps it doesn't surprise us that people are most concerned about their immediate vicinity (i.e. health, crime, services). However, as global citizens there is still a need for big picture thinking. This type of strategy is not so easy for the individuals in the hive. That's where politicians have to balance things, and get the enablers right. E.g. health care will suffer in future if education is compromised. That opens up other questions about complex things like equality, environment, trade, war etc

So although this is valuable as a type of back-to-basics exercise, we may find that it still doesn't fully give us the answers we seek. The way I'd look at it is that this study helps us place our true motivation in the centre. The other complex factors feed into that motivation. If they help achieve the centre goals, then we support them. But if those factors do not help, then perhaps that's a time to put them in the trash can because, at the heart of it, they don't really matter. And here's the proof.

If the survey has come to the conclusion that voters aren't interested in the environment through forcing them to consider tradeoffs between clean energy and their child's education then its no wonder that they have discovered the views the conservative press that dominates Australian political debate (and thus drives Australia's poll driven politics) has educated them to accept.

Rupert Murdoch has been found morally unfit to operate an international business in the UK. Here, the 70% of newspapers he owns, have run a concerted campaing not only against the governments carbon market reform, but against climate science itself, giving more column inches to counter-scientists in the pay of fossil fuel lobbies than to those actually qualifed to comment, as well documented by Robert Manne. An argument could be made that Murdoch is morally unfit to run Australia's political debates, but such a debate could not be conducted in Australia's stiflingly concentrated media.

“So the use of polling instruments that are inaccurate in some ways creates a serious problem in terms of making policy based on those poll results."

If the question had been more appropriately framed as a tradeoff between investing in money and energy saving solar equipment and say, buying a second large 4wd or 3rd television for their house, or supporting continued subsidies for international mining companies or coal seam gas developers, then one wonders if the same results would have obtained.

The findings of this survey are likely to be seized on by Liberal politicians, supportive as they are of the Right's central doctrines of selfishness and greed. The researchers' own political views and potential influence are inevitably called into question. What assurance can they offer that survey questions were presented, analysed and interpreted in an unbiased way?