Canberra — The resignation of Australian Industrial Relations Minister Andrew Peacock presents Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and the Liberal Country coalition with their gravest crisis since coming to power.
Peacock is acknowledged on all sides as the man most likely to succeed Malcolm Fraser as leader of the Liberal Party. Public opinion polls rate him as being twice as popular as Fraser.
The prime minister is trying to play down the significance of the resignation. He insists he still "has the numbers" -- party support --to remain as leader. And he does, for the moment, have the support of his Cabinet a majority of the Liberal Party.
But the resignation, the dispute that led up to it, and the bitterness of Peacock's remarks when he resigned have left the party in an unsettling position.
In his resignation announcement, Mr. Peacock accused the prime minister of "gross disloyalty" and of allowing "false and damaging reports to be published" about him in his capacities as first foreign minister and most recently industrial relations minister.
In his handling of industrial relations, Peacock found that on almost every issue the prime minister demanded that the Cabinet, rather than the minister alone, determine policy. And Fraser shaped the policy the Cabinet adopted, not Peacock.
It was this frustration -- not being allowed to determine the policy of the department he was administering -- that led to Peacock's resignation.
Perhaps the most important issue that brought about the breaking point was Peacock-Fraser disagreement about how to halt the industrial unions' drive for a 35-hour workweek.
Fraser's approach was to threaten to reduce tariff protection for the chemical industry if it bargained with unions over the issue. He summoned the managing director of the Australian subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries for talks. ICI responded that that it might not proceed with the construction of several new plants.
Peacock's private secretary blasted the government's action in what he believed to be a confidential talk with industry leaders. He said industry ought to be "appalled" by the the way the government "bullied" it. The government, he said, had not spoken honestly. The Cabinet forced Peacock to accept the assistant's resignation.
In many respects, the Peacock-Fraser feud is a personality clash. Personality plays a very large part in Australian politics.
Parts of Peacock's resignation statement were copied from a resignation speech Fraser himself delivered when he resigned as a minister from another Liberal government 10 years ago. It took Fraser five years to win the party leadership after resigning. Mr. Peacock undoubtedly hopes to become leader in less time.
Peacock will make a speech to the Parliament when it resumes in which he will attempt to spell out the policy differences between himself and the prime minister.
His resignation followed the publication of a report in a daily newspaper that he had threatened to resign from the Fraser's Cabinet on the eve of the last federal elections.
The issue then was the recognition of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Mr. Peacock, who then held the portfolio of foreign minister, thought Australia should withdraw recognition from Pol Pot, and not recognize any other government.
The rest of the Cabinet disagreed. Peacock threatened to resign unless the government adopted his views before the election campaign concluded. He believed the newspaper report had been leaked by the prime minister or Sir Phillip Lynch, whom Peacock had come within seven votes of unseating as deputy leader following last year's federal elections.
After the election Peacock was moved from the foreign affairs portfolio to minister for industrial relations. He had long sought a "domestic" portfolio to round off his ministerial experience and to improve his prospects of eventually succeeding Fraser as party leader.
Australia's news media have treated the Peacock resignation as crucially important. The Australian Financial Review editorialized that "the gravity of the political crisis . . . cannot be overestimated. It has implications for the immediate future of government, for the fate of the prime minister and the coalition government and for the labor party."
The Sydney Morning Herald regretted Mr. Peacock's resignation and said, "It is bad news for the country, for the government, and for Mr. Fraser."
Crises of this kind frequently occur under Prime Minister Fraser, who has led the coalition government for 5 1/2 years. In that time there have been 15 sackings, resignations, or suspensions from key positions. Only 14 of his original 25 ministers are still with him.
Peacock is the most senior minister to quit and poses the greatest medium-term threat because of his strong public support.