Australians back the idea of using nuclear-powered submarines and want billions of dollars invested in national security, with 70 per cent of voters saying spending on defence should be 2 per cent or more of the economy.
The federal government’s pledge to develop a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines is actively supported by 25 per cent of voters and acceptable to another 39 per cent, while another 17 per cent oppose the idea.
But this week’s specific proposal to buy the first submarines from the United States and build a future fleet in Adelaide is yet to gain a similar majority, with a third of voters unsure about a commitment that could cost up to $368 billion over the next three decades.
The exclusive findings highlight the challenge for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in gaining approval from the electorate for the two-stage plan unveiled in San Diego on Tuesday after former prime minister Paul Keating called it the worst international decision by a Labor government in a century.
Albanese hit back on Friday at Keating’s claim that the vast spending would go overseas, declaring instead that most of the investment would be in local industry and jobs to develop shipyards and ports and build the new fleet.
“Overwhelmingly it will be here,” he said of the spending.
Albanese said the long-term cost would be 0.15 per cent of economic output and this meant the $368 billion would be less than one-tenth of the total defence budget over the next three decades.
“That’s why it represents good value, that’s why it’s the right thing to do. To spend more, sure, but get a better product,” he told ABC Radio in Melbourne.
The survey, conducted by Resolve Strategic for this masthead, found 50 per cent of voters supported the specific commitment made by Albanese this week but 16 per cent were opposed and 34 per cent were undecided.
Support for the next phase of the AUKUS alliance with the US and United Kingdom is higher among Labor voters, at 55 per cent, and among Coalition voters, at 57 per cent, but is only 38 per cent among all other voters, including those who back the Greens and independent candidates.
Keating launched a broadside against the submarine plan this week by declaring it would sacrifice Australian sovereignty and make the country more reliant on the US and UK without any white paper or major ministerial statement to explain the threat the country was supposedly facing.
“In short, a plan to spend around $368 billion, for nuclear submarines to conduct operations against China in the most risky of conditions, is of little military benefit to anybody, even to the Americans,” he said.
Former Labor cabinet minister Peter Garrett said the AUKUS deal “stinks” because it would cost too much, give up Australian independence and weaken nuclear safeguards, but government ministers are backing the commitment despite unrest among Labor branch members.
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles also confirmed on Friday the government would buy Tomahawk missiles from the US, although he did not say how many.
“Making sure that we have longer-range strike missiles is a really important capability for the country. It enables us to be able to reach out beyond our shores further, and that’s ultimately how we are able to keep Australia safe,” he said.
The move drew a rebuke from Greens leader Adam Bandt because the missiles would add to the cost of the AUKUS plan.
“I don’t agree with Paul Keating about many things, but on this, he is right. This is a terrible decision that makes us less safe, sells out our sovereignty and takes billions of dollars away from schools and hospitals,” Bandt said.
The survey questions were asked in two stages and began with a general proposition that found 64 per cent of voters supported or accepted the idea that Australia would use nuclear-powered vessels, up from 56 per cent on the same question in a survey in November 2021.
The 64 per cent figure comprised 25 per cent who said they actively supported the idea and another 39 per cent who said they found it acceptable. Another 17 per cent said they opposed the idea and 20 per cent were undecided.
The question was: “Australia has committed to purchase and operate nuclear-powered submarines with the assistance of the UK and US. While nuclear-powered, they would not contain nuclear weapons. Do you personally support or oppose the adoption of nuclear-powered submarines by Australia?” Voters were given the option of saying they “actively support” the idea or saying they find the idea “acceptable” while not having strong feelings on the issue.
Asked about the specific AUKUS agreement in the next question, 50 per cent said they supported the plan to buy some submarines from the US and also build vessels in Australia with a British design. Another 16 per cent opposed the plan and 34 per cent were undecided.
The question was: “Australia is now due to commit to buying between eight and 11 nuclear-powered submarines, starting with three to five off-the-shelf US submarines being delivered from 2032, followed by a number of UK-designed submarines built in Australia. This is now expected to cost up to $368 billion and create 20,000 jobs, this being the largest Australian defence purchase in history. Do you support or oppose the purchase of these submarines?”
The Resolve Political Monitor surveyed 1600 eligible voters from Sunday to Thursday, a period of heavy media coverage of the AUKUS plan before and after Tuesday’s announcement. The specific question about the AUKUS deal was added after the details were released on Tuesday morning, but the bulk of the responses were received before Keating aired his objections on Wednesday.
“Any survey is a snapshot … however, the results tell us that many Australians are undecided or hold weak views because the project is so new,” Resolve director Jim Reed said.
“Given the survey focused on a period before criticism by Paul Keating and Peter Garrett, or state concerns about waste storage, this might very well change over time.”
The question on AUKUS included the $368 billion cost estimate – a figure that included local industry development as well as the cost of each vessel out to 2055 – because this was reported at 7am on Tuesday, but Reed said earlier questions put a lower cost on the policy and this highlighted the scope for opinions to change.
“Most people believe there is a threat to Australia’s national security and therefore a need to act on that, but that doesn’t mean they can’t harbour concerns about this particular deal, and the use of nuclear reactors and its value for money in particular,” he said.
“The survey began by testing the policy with a price tag of around $170 billion but this eventually more than doubled to $368 billion as more information was released. That’s a $60,000 bill for a two-child family, which I suspect might raise some concerns in the current climate.”
Defence spending is running at about 2 per cent of GDP but Albanese has signalled it will increase to support AUKUS and other projects, a scenario many Australians support.
Asked whether defence spending should change, 31 per cent said it should remain at its existing level while 39 per cent said it should be higher than the current benchmark, while 9 per cent said it should fall and 22 per cent were undecided.
These results included 24 per cent who thought the spending should be between 2 and 3 per cent of GDP and another 14 per cent of the total sample who believed it should be higher than 3 per cent.
The question was: “The federal government has previously committed to spending around 2 per cent of Australia’s GDP on defence, including upgrades to equipment like submarines, drones and aircraft. People have argued about whether this is too much, about right or not enough. Indeed, Anthony Albanese has recently said that he would like to spend more on defence. What proportion of GDP do you think Australia should spend on defence in the next few years?”
A strong majority agreed with the proposition that Russia and/or China were a threat to Australia, but there was a key difference of opinion on how Australia should respond.
While 28 per cent agreed that the two countries were a threat that needed to be confronted soon, 52 per cent said they were a threat that could be managed with careful relationships over time.
The question was: “Some people believe that large single-party states, like Russia and China, are a real threat to Australia and other Western democracies. Others think this threat is overstated. What is your own view?”
Keating sparked controversy in November 2021 by arguing that Taiwan was “not a vital Australian interest” despite concerns about China using force one day to take control of the island, which it regards as its territory. Australia recognises the Chinese government in Beijing as the sole government of China and acknowledges its position that Taiwan is a province of China.
The latest survey found that 65 per cent of respondents regarded Taiwan as an independent and sovereign state, unchanged from the same question in the survey in March last year. Only 8 per cent believed Taiwan was part of China.
Asked about a war over Taiwan, however, only 15 per cent said Australia should take military action if China invaded the island – the central scenario in the highly contested debate about whether the rise of China presents a threat to stability in the region.
Voters were given several options when asked about the response to a potential conflict, with 47 per cent saying Australia should take diplomatic action and 46 per cent also naming trade and economic sanctions. Only 10 per cent said Australia should do nothing, while 23 per cent were undecided.
The question was: “In recent months, China has been conducting military manoeuvres where aircraft and ships enter Taiwanese territory, with some believing this to be a prelude to invasion and occupation. If China were to invade Taiwan, which of the following do you believe Australia should do? You can tick all that apply.”
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