Australians like vaccination, and overwhelmingly think it should be mandatory

Cannon behind the scenes: Vaccinations increase vitality

Mass childhood vaccination is one of the most important public health measures ever devised. As well as protecting vaccinated individuals, high levels of overall vaccination also protect those who can’t be vaccinated themselves. To achieve community protection – or ‘herd immunity’ – against infectious diseases, approximately 95% of the population needs to be vaccinated. This means that even small pockets of non-vaccination can be dangerous.

Many governments around the world have implemented mandatory childhood vaccination measures to try and achieve or maintain community protection. Australia is a world leader in such measures. Most recently, the Federal government’s “No Jab, No Pay” policy, implemented in 2016, legislated that certain family welfare payments were conditional on full childhood vaccination and ended exemptions for conscientious objectors. Meanwhile, state-level “No Jab, No Play” laws have banned unvaccinated children from enrolling in daycare and pre-schools in multiple states.

Despite the general popularity of and trust in vaccines, previous research has shown that mandatory vaccination policies receive much less support. For example, at the time of the “Disneyland outbreak” of measles in California in 2015, Pew released a study showing that 30% of Americans believed “parents should decide” whether to vaccinate their children. A 2013 YouGov survey found that while 88% of British adults believed the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine was safe, only 58% of them favoured making it compulsory, while 27% opposed. Different policy histories (vaccination hasn’t been mandatory in Britain for more than a century) and political cultures (conservatives in the US are more opposed to government intrusions in family health) help explain why many people in these countries don’t support vaccination mandates even when they support vaccines. Until now, there has been no study exploring the relationship between Australians’ attitudes towards vaccination and their views on whether it should be mandatory.

Our research, conducted through the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Human and Cultural Values in collaboration with data and insights company Pureprofile, aims to uncover what Australians think. Do some of us, like our British and American counterparts, oppose mandatory vaccination even while approving of vaccines? Could this become a political issue here? In a survey of over 1000 Australian adults, we asked whether people think vaccines are safe, effective and necessary, and whether they support the “No Jab, No Pay” policy. We also asked about their voting preferences, as we wanted to identify whether there is a political divide on the issue that could one day be exploited, something that is feared by vaccination advocates in the US.

Our findings are strikingly favourable not just towards perceptions on vaccination, but also support for mandatory vaccination in Australia. 87.6% of respondents agreed that vaccination is safe, effective and necessary, while 83.7% supported the government’s “No Jab, No Pay” policy. Only 8.7% of respondents opposed the vaccination mandate while 2% of respondents who disagreed with the policy still generally approved of vaccines. While some in Australia have argued that “No Jab, No Pay” is a regressive policy that could turn vaccine-hesitant people against vaccination altogether, our research suggests that in Australia, nearly everyone who favours vaccination wants it to be mandatory.

Furthermore, this support for mandatory vaccination stretches across the political spectrum in Australia. Examining the data based on voting preference, more than 80% of respondents from every major and minor party agreed with the ‘No Jab, No Pay’ policy. This includes  Greens and One Nation supporters, despite Pauline Hanson’s description of compulsory vaccination as a “dictatorship”. However, there were some small differences. Those who preferenced the Greens were slightly less likely than other respondents to “strongly agree” with “No Jab, No Pay” (although their overall agreement was still high). Those supporting independents and smaller parties were also less likely to agree with the policy (77%). While some demographic and socioeconomic factors have technically “significant” effects on support for mandatory vaccination – more religious people are slightly less likely to support it, as are younger and poorer people – these effects were tiny, and add no explanatory power to the statistical model.

Australians are not divided meaningfully on party political lines when it comes to attitudes towards vaccination or parents’ freedom of choice to reject vaccines for their children. The high approval rates of the “No Jab, No Pay” policy is strongly linked to widespread national support and popularity of vaccinations. Despite critiques from some public health and vaccination experts, this policy is likely to remain in place in Australia.

This blog has been adapted from Smith, Attwell and Uwana. 2019. ‘Majority acceptance of vaccination and mandates across the political spectrum in Australia’. Politics. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263395719859457

David Smith is a Senior Lecturer at the United States Studies Centre and the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His work examines relations between states and minorities.

Katie Attwell is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia. A political scientist, Dr Attwell’s international comparative work focuses on the politics and policy of mandatory childhood vaccination. She is the recipient of an Australia Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (project number DE190100158) funded by the Australian Government.

Uwana Evers is a Research Fellow at the UWA Business School, University of Western Australia and the Centre for Human and Cultural Values. She is a BPS Chartered Psychologist, and has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wollongong. Her current research focuses on personal values and their impact on behaviours, including sustainable lifestyles and charitable giving.