Are our political differences healthy or dangerous?
That’s a question polling firm Ipsos recently asked people across 27 countries, including Australia. The survey, conducted in partnership with the BBC, probed how people felt about the political differences within their communities.
It showed there were deep fears within some democracies about the damage being done by the intensity of political disagreement.
Nearly six in 10 respondents in the US and Sweden, and over half in South Africa and France, believed their society was more in danger than it was 20 years ago because politics was so divisive.
But the mood in Australia was quite different – it turns out we were relatively relaxed about political disagreement.
Only 20 per cent said political divisions were dangerous for society, one of the lowest shares among the nations surveyed. Double that proportion – 40 per cent – said political differences were actually healthy for society. Another 19 per cent said that, while political differences were present, they were not having a significant impact.
When international public opinion surveys are conducted Australia’s results are often quite similar to those in the US and Britain.
But that’s not the case when in comes to attitudes to political divisions.
In the US, where the political success of Donald Trump has roiled politics and stoked partisan rivalry, more than half of respondents said political divisions were a danger to society. In Brexit-riven Britain the share was almost a third.
Ipsos pollster Jessica Elgood said voters in Australia were much less ruffled by political disagreements than in those two English-speaking nations we are so often compared with.
“We’re not feeling nearly as torn,” she said.
“There’s an element of political calm in Australia.”
In another sign that Australians are relatively comfortable with a diversity of opinions only a third said the majority of their friends had similar views to them on climate change (31 per cent), immigration (32 per cent) and feminism (33 per cent). A quarter said their friends had similar views on religion.
Australia also had an above average share who considered it important to listen to people who have different views from themselves.
“The data suggests we are comfortable with a breadth of opinions in our society,” Elgood said. “There’s a real tolerance for those differences.”
Four in 10 Australians (43 per cent) said they had a conversation at least once a month with someone with opposing views to their own on issues such as politics, climate change, immigration or feminism. One in five said they had a weekly conversation with someone holding different political views.
But overall, politics remains a thorny subject for Australians. We seem less inclined to discuss it than people in many other parts of the world.
The share of Australian respondents who said they feel comfortable sharing their political opinions with those who might disagree was well below the international average.
“There are various points in the data that suggest there’s an element in Australian society where it’s not quite polite to ask people about their politics in a way that’s not the case in Europe, for example, or North America,” Elgood said.
“We don’t necessarily know our friends’ political views or how they vote … you may never have asked because it’s not a socially acceptable thing to ask about and also because we don’t use it to define each other.”
This trait was underscored by a survey question about attitudes to immigration, which is a controversial issue in many nations. In Australia, 36 per cent said they did not know their friends’ views on immigration, the highest proportion among the 27 nations in the survey. (Australia also stands out for its positive attitude towards immigration – 46 per cent said it had a “generally positive” impact on the country, which was nearly double the international average and the third highest share among the nations surveyed.)
Will Australia’s tolerance for political differences last?
We do feel more polarised – a recent poll found six in 10 think the nation is more divied now than a decade ago. A similar share believe social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are making debates about social issues much more divisive than they used to be.
For now, the share of Australians who think political diferences are healthy for our society comfortably outnumber those who see them as a danger.
But the trends at work in other democracies, revealed by the Ipsos polling, shows that can’t be taken for granted.
Matt Wade is a senior writer at The Sydney Morning Herald.