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Sir Joh makes the `new right' wince

By David SolomonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 1987



Canberra

The premier of Queensland, Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, has declared himself a candidate for prime minister of Australia. Over the past few weeks he has conducted a campaign to promote his own transition from state to federal politics, despite the antagonism of the federal and other state branches of his own party, the National Party.

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Sir Joh has not made it clear how he will move into federal politics, but he has threatened if necessary to start a new party - the ``Joh Party'' - if he cannot take over the existing coalition between the Liberal and National Parties in Canberra.

Rumors about a move into national politics by the Queensland premier have circulated for years, but they have never been taken seriously before.

Despite the fact that he has been premier of Queensland for almost 18 years, Sir Joh's electoral support has never been great. His party won the last Queensland elections because of the way electorates are heavily weighted in favor of his National Party. He scored well under 40 percent of the vote. The support he would get in other states would be even lower than that - less than 30 percent according to February polls.

But Sir Joh's ambitions are being taken seriously by federal politicians. The Liberal and National party leaders say they would welcome his move into federal politics, but have not offered him any leadership post.

They protest that the way Sir Joh has mounted his campaign can only damage the coalition's chances of beating the federal Labor government of Prime Minister Bob Hawke. A federal election is due to be held later this year or early next year.

The Queensland premier has so far not spelled out in detail the policies he proposes, other than suggesting that he favors a flat-rate income tax, lower government expenditures, and a confrontation with the trade unions to reduce their powers. To some extent, these are the policies of the ``new right'' political groups that have emerged in Australia in the past six months.

The ``new right,'' for its part, has hardly adopted Sir Joh as its candidate. One of its leaders, Andrew Hay, the head of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, warned that Sir Joh, as Queensland premier, has led a government that was highly interventionist and that maintained high state taxes and charges.

Even so, two groups within the ``new right'' - the anti-Labor parties headed by John Howard of the Liberal Party and Ian Sinclair of the National Party - are very concerned about Sir Joh's plans. Mr. Howard has warned that he would ``treat [Sir Joh] like any other back-bencher.'' Mr. Sinclair said Sir Joh would be particularly welcome if he tried to win a seat presently held by a Labor minister.

Sir Joh's response has been to make it clear that he intends to be prime minister, not a back-bencher, and that he does not need Mr. Sinclair's advice about what seats he should contest. He has already started his new political party in one territory and seems to have the support of the National Party in two states.

He says he has a lot of prospective candidates for his new party, including his son. His wife is already a senator in Canberra. A property developer in Queensland says $25 million has already been pledged to support the new party. This is twice as much as the major parties spent in the last federal election. The latest public opinion polls shows Labor equal in popularity with the Liberal-National coalition, though spot polls suggest that both sides would lose some votes to the ``Joh Party.''