Hawke at the helm

Can a former combative labor union leader lift Australia out of its economic malaise? Australians may not be sure, perhaps, but they are giving Robert Hawke and the Labor Party a chance to do so. Australia's friends around the world - all wrestling with similar problems - will be watching with interest.

The Australian experience is intriguing because Australians in general are extremely conservative and have kept a conservative coalition government in power during all but three years since 1949. However, with unemployment running at 10 percent, inflation at a high rate of 11 percent, and record droughts aggravating the recession, the electorate as a whole obviously felt that a change of leadership was needed. This did not mean a sharp swing leftward, however. Mr. Hawke is generally seen not as a radical but as a practical problem solver and conciliator who projects a middle-of-the-road image. He is often at odds with his own party. An articulate, bright former Rhodes scholar, Mr. Hawke is one of the most popular men in the country.

Nevertheless, the new Australian leader has little experience in government, and he will need to summon up all his skills as a labor mediator to get the various segments of Australian society, including the boisterous labor unions, working together to combat the recession. If he pursues his campaign promises - more spending to create jobs, tax cuts, higher welfare benefits - he risks fueling even higher inflation, so he will have to proceed carefully. With his strong ties in the business community, in fact, it would not be surprising to find the new prime minister moving even farther right as he deals with the economy. In any case, his quick devaluation of the Australian dollar by 10 percent in order to lure capital back to Australia seems an early sign that he will be a man of action.

Foreign policy and defense issues did not play much part in the campaign. Since his election Mr. Hawke has said that he will take a more independent stance than did Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who is strongly pro-American. But Mr. Hawke, too, is committed to close ties with the United States and continued joint operation of military facilities in Australia. As for the flurry of concern raised about the Labor Party's opposition to Australian participation in the Sinai peacekeeping force, Mr. Hawke has indicated he will not take any action that might destabilize the Middle East. It can be hoped that he will follow through on his promise to visit the Mideast and learn firsthand the contribution of a multinational presence to peace in that troubled region.

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