Australia vote: pluses and minuses

AUSTRALIANS have always taken pride in their rugged independence and feistiness. So in that regard last weekend's Australian national election seems as much in form as somewhat of a surprise: Namely, the reelection of the ruling Labor Party government of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, although by a smaller than expected margin.

Public-opinion polls before the election had shown Hawke's party well out front with Labor likely to add to its 25-seat majority in the House of Representatives. So the outcome, with the Labor majority being reduced to some 17 seats as of this writing, can only be considered an upset of sorts.

Australian pundits - and citizens - will most likely be attempting to unravel the meaning of the results for some time to come. Mr. Hawke attributes the results to introduction of new voting procedures that confused many people - and resulted in the invalidation of their ballots. Many of those ballots presumably would have gone to Labor. But critics say the results show increasing strength for the opposition - especially Liberal Party leader Andrew Peacock, who did particularly well in the nation's first televised election debate.

What does the election mean for Australia, as well as Australia's allies? The moderate, pro-business Mr. Hawke is expected to face an intensified challenge in Parliament, from within his own party as well as from the opposition. Although favoring nuclear arms reductions and a nuclear-free zone for the South Pacific, Hawke has opposed banning foreign military bases - including US bases - from Australia. Such a ban has been demanded by Labor's left wing. Mr. Hawke has also alienated the left by refusing to shut down the nation's uranium industry.

Whatever the specific reasons for a lessened vote, Labor remains the nation's largest party, winning close to 48 percent of all ballots, with opposition parties dividing the rest.

For that reason alone, Hawke is expected to continue his essentially centrist policies.

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