1 November 2021
Governments around the world and in Australia (Federal, State and Territory) are running significant budget deficits following the COVID-19 pandemic. Achieving fiscal consolidation is likely to be politically contentious and may not have the public support needed to return government budgets to pre-pandemic positions while servicing increased amounts of debt incurred during the pandemic. There are concerns from stakeholders that if austerity measures are imposed too early, it may harm economic recovery.
The Susan McKinnon Foundation funded a newDemocracy Foundation pilot to explore the potential for opinion polling to improve the quality of public policy decision making in Australia. SEC Newgate was commissioned to undertake one of three pilot research projects, in this case, research focused on public opinion of post-pandemic economic recovery and budget repair. This was not an exhaustive policy test, but instead an exploratory piece of research to assist in policy making and implementation.
The research sought to understand what Australians think about government debt, which kinds of debt recovery measures are palatable, and what effective issue framing in budget repair would look like, including:
- Is there an understanding of the need for budget repair?
- Does a balanced budget still matter?
- Is there concern about the level of debt held by governments?
- What kind of trade-offs would be acceptable to achieve budget repair?
- Are there areas that are priorities for budget repair, and other areas that are not acceptable?
The research methodology involved:
- An online community that ran from the 28th–30th September 2021 with a broadly representative sample of 42 adult Australians. An online community is a virtual space where a group of people share ideas and interact with one another. Participants were recruited to be broadly representative of the Australian community by age, gender, state, metro and regional locations and voting intentions.
- A 15-minute online quantitative survey of sample of 3,036 people across Australia, aged 18 and over. Representative age, gender and location quotas were set to provide a good cross-section of participants across various demographic cohorts.
Key insights arising from the research included:
- Government debt is not currently a top-of-mind issue. Australians are currently focused on the quality of health services and the cost of living. Government debt in and of itself is quite low on the prompted list of concerns but we know from the qualitative research that its implications are inextricably intertwined with things the community cares a lot about, such as the cost of living, housing affordability and employment.
- Managing debt is not in the frame when Australians think about what good economic management by government looks like. They tend to think of this in terms of maintaining employment, cost of living, the availability of services and infrastructure, and care for the environment. Only 7% mentioned managing debt in the context of good economic management.
- People view budget repair through the prism of impact on them personally although there is also broader interest in the implications for the sort of society that Australians want to live in.
- The preferred approach to budget repair was to grow the economy. It is important to note that when this was explored with qualitative participants, they found it difficult to articulate what this would look like in practice. They preferred it over increasing taxes or cutting government spend as it was less likely to impact them personally.
- Research on a topic like government debt requires some kind of deliberative engagement to get more meaningful results. Comparison of results between the qualitative and quantitative phases showed that people engage more and feel more confident in expressing an opinion when they can discuss the issues, hear what others think and consider implications and trade-offs rather than when they simply read facts. This suggests that on complex issues like this, qualitative research potentially has more power than quantitative research in terms of building capacity to respond in a meaningful way.
Further details, findings and insights were shared with relevant stakeholders, including Members of Parliament, government agencies and other interest groups. The data set arising from the research is available for download. Stakeholders also engaged in a series of feedback and design interviews relating to program design and development for the purposes of the Pilot. Details, findings and insights relating to the Pilot are set out in a research report published on 31 January 2022.