Data Insights Series: Australia’s changing global interests 

Are major democracies around the world more concerned with their national interest above their role as global citizens?

With the election of Donald J Trump as the President of the United States, a variety of commentators have said the United States is becoming both more insular and isolationist. This trend is echoing around the world with Brexit in the United Kingdom, the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Freedom Party in Austria and Front Nationale in France.

To make sure Australia wasn’t captured in this trend too, we set out to determine if our national interest in the world was increasing or decreasing over time and what international events were sufficient to capture our interest.

So we counted the number of times the 60 most populous countries were mentioned in an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, for 30 years from 1985 – 2014.

To ensure we captured the entire picture we also included countries in Australia’s sphere of influence, the Pacific. We measured the number of times each country was mentioned in five-year periods across the 30 years. The Sydney Morning Herald was selected due to its role as a paper of record and the ability to easily access the relevant information.

Not surprisingly the country mentioned most in the Sydney Morning Herald was New Zealand, with whom Australia shares significant cultural DNA, close geographic proximity and a year-round sports rivalry. Over the 30 years surveyed New Zealand was mentioned almost 80,000 times.

Conversely the West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, was only mentioned 52 times over the 30 years, despite significant upheaval in that period including a bloody 1999 coup and a civil war in 2002.

The top 10 most mentioned countries – New Zealand, the United States, Japan, France, China, Germany, South Africa, Canada, India and Italy – reflect Australia’s trading partners, strategic military partners, sporting rivals and the birthplace of a significant number of migrants. The remainder of the top 30 are largely holiday destinations, like Indonesia, and countries where Australia has had a military presence over that period, including East Timor.

The number of foreign mentions peaked in the period 2000-2004 at 133,779, or more than 85 mentions per edition of the paper, before declining to only 77 mentions per edition in 2010-2014. The nations we are interested in have grown more diverse though, with Australia’s “favourite” countries mentioned 4.6% less in 2010-14 than in the 1985-89 period.

If we take the Sydney Morning Herald as a reasonable sample size, it seems that while we have less appetite for world affairs generally, Australia is interested in a greater number of countries.

Click on the image below to reach the interactive map and scroll between the time periods to see how Australia’s global interests have changed since 1985.

Trump image via Daily WireAustralian soldier in Timor via SMH; Cote d’Ivoire image via Redcross/ Reuters; SMH newspaper image via


Dan Wood
Consulting Manager