Fewer Australians think government should play a role in providing essential services as well as in their daily lives, new research from The Australian National University (ANU) shows. 

The survey analysed the views of more than 3,300 adults in January 2023 as part of the COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey, which has been tracking the pandemic’s effect in Australia since April 2020.

According to the study’s findings, Australians think government’s most important role is to provide health care for the sick, control who enters Australia’s borders and making industry reduce its environmental impact.

Government functions with the lowest levels of support are providing a decent standard of living for the unemployed, providing industry assistance and providing a job for everyone who wants one.

Study co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle said it was “particularly surprising” to find support for a substantial role for government was lower during the COVID-19 period than it was pre-COVID.

“Our index of ‘belief in government’ was highest in August 2018, dropped a little in 2021 and 2022, then declined quite substantially between 2022 and 2023,” Professor Biddle said.

Despite these findings, the survey shows confidence in government remains strong.

The proportion of Australians who had quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in the federal government increased from 35.6 per cent in April 2022 just prior to the federal election to 52.9 per cent in August 2022. In January 2023, confidence was steady at 51.2 per cent.

Professor Biddle said that Australians’ high level of satisfaction with and trust in government was having an effect on attitudes to the government’s role.

“Australians are more confident in the federal government than they have been since the height of the ‘rally-around-the-flag’ period in late-2020 when the federal and state/territory governments were actively managing the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

“Over a slightly longer term, almost twice as many Australians are confident in their government now compared to January 2020, when Australia was in the grip of the Black Summer bushfires.

“Perhaps because of this satisfaction, Australians do not appear to be demanding a much greater role for government. Indeed, apart from support for the unemployed, in many areas there are fewer Australians that think governments should have a role to play.”

Professor Biddle said that satisfaction with the direction of the country has remained high throughout most of the pandemic, apart from a roughly six-month period leading up to the May 2022 federal election, when the Morrison government lost confidence and lost support in the polls.

Almost three-quarters of Australians, 73.9 per cent, were satisfied or very satisfied with the direction of the country. Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially limiting greater number of deaths from the virus, was also a key factor shaping Australians’ attitudes to government. 

“It is in some way not surprising that Australians are far more optimistic towards the country and the political system than in other democracies. Australia’s COVID-19 experience was vastly different,” Professor Biddle said.

“If death rates comparable to the United States or the United Kingdom had eventuated, then we would expect that Australians would be less satisfied with their own lives, less satisfied or confident in their institutions, and more likely to support notions of populism.”

The survey also shows Australians’ attention has shifted to the economy, with 44.5 per cent of Australians saying economic issues were the most important. A further 9.3 per cent listed housing shortages/affordability and interest rates as being the most important, with only 1.3 per cent listing COVID in the same category.

In less positive news, the survey also shows Australians are more financially stressed than at any other time during or just prior to the pandemic, with almost one in three people, 27.9 per cent finding it difficult to get by on their current income.

“Financial stress is one of the issues most Australians are struggling with,” Professor Biddle said.

“Given almost exactly half, 49.9 per cent, of Australians think that rising prices were a very big problem according to the survey, it is an issue that will undoubtedly be front of mind for our political leaders.”

The findings from the latest ANUpoll are available online.

Top image: Parliament House, Canberra Australia. Photo by baspley/stock.adobe.com 

Contact the media team

James Giggacher

Associate Director, Media and Communications

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