By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes for the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
With the September general election rapidly approaching, domestic polls show the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard trailing the opposition by a growing margin, despite the fact that Australians are among the most satisfied publics in the world, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of economic sentiment in 39 countries.
A poll in The Australian newspaper earlier this month showed the opposition coalition with a 16-point lead over Gillard’s Labor Party, with regional polls suggesting heavy losses for the ruling party.
And yet, after a generation without a recession, Australians are happier with the state of their economy and their personal finances than most people in advanced, emerging or developing economies. They have relatively high hopes for Australia’s and their own economic futures. And they are among the least worried about inequality and unemployment.
Yet domestic elections are often referendums on people’s anxieties, not their satisfactions. And with signs of a slowdown in the economy, worsening employment prospects and the waning of the mining boom, Australians are divided on the general direction of the country. They worry that the next generation will not do as well as the current generation. Moreover, they believe that the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in recent years.
Just over two-thirds of Australians think the economy is doing well, according to the Pew Research survey conducted early last month among 800 Australians. This is twice the satisfaction level in the United States. But it falls far short of that in China (88 percent) or Malaysia (85 percent). And it is Australians with a college education who are the most upbeat about the economy.
Meanwhile, less than a third of Australians think the economy is going to improve over the next 12 months. But that is still above the median of 25 percent for advanced economies, and Australia’s economy also grew 3.6 percent last year. Among the minority of Australians who worry that the economy will worsen, it is more likely to be those without a college degree.
About three-quarters of Australians say their personal finances are good, with men more likely than women to report good personal finances and to think they will improve, numbers only beaten by the Germans and Canadians.
Moreover, one-third of Australians think the growing gap between the rich and the poor is a very big problem, with just over half saying the current economic system is fair to most people; only Venezuela and Malaysia have more faith in the equity of the economy.
But do Australians realize quite how good they have it, at least compared with their peers? Certainly, one economic issue that Australians may not appreciate is the relatively low level of deprivation they experience. Australians are better off than South Koreans, Americans, Greeks, Czechs or the French when measured by the percentage of the population who say that there has been a time in the last year when they could not afford to buy the food or the clothing or the health care that their family needed.
Despite such advantages, a little under half of Australians are happy with the direction of the country, with the greatest dissatisfaction among people without a college education. Still, they are not alone – again, only Germans and Canadians are more pleased with what is happening in their country overall.
Looking forward, more than half of Australians (53 percent) think that today’s children will not do as well economically as the current generation. Those without a college degree were again the most worried. This pessimism – and its implications for Gillard’s future – is even more pronounced when placed in perspective. Among the 14 advanced economies surveyed by the Pew Research Center, only two were less pessimistic about the prospects for the next generation.
Australians are, however, less concerned about the economic challenges they face than are publics in other nations. Aussies are equally worried about inflation (39 percent say it’s a very big problem) and jobs, while a third also say the same about inequality and public debt. These concerns pale in comparison to such worries in other countries: 84 percent of Italians and 68 percent of the French think rising prices are a very big problem, while an astonishing 94 percent of Spanish say joblessness is a very big issue (perhaps not surprising considering youth unemployment in the country hit a record 57 percent last month). Like people in a majority of the countries surveyed, Australians say that dealing with the lack of employment opportunities should be the government’s first priority.
The problem for Gillard and her Labor Party is that when voters go to the polls in any country they generally cast their ballots based purely on domestic issues and perceptions. How their sentiments stack up against those of others in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere abroad is not a concern. That may explain why Australian economic sentiment, which is broadly more positive than that in other advanced economies, does not seem to be helping the prime minister.