'Tough bloke' prime minister knocks union clout

If union wage demands get out of hand this year in Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser says, he has a ready solution: "We'll get a tighter hold on monetary policy. Therefore the trade unions who press for unreasonable wage demands will have to know that they'll be adding directly to unemployment."

Mr. Fraser's hard-nosed attitude toward the unions is in many ways typical of his approach to running the country. He has been willing to tweek the noses of the state premiers, alienating them by cutting back on their funds. And he has made cuts in education and health care that has taken Australians off their surfboards and onto picket lines outside Parliament.

"Big Mal," as he is sometimes called because of his 6- foot, 5-inch frame, is willing to show the nation he is a "tough bloke." It's an image that sometimes limits his personal popularity but so far hasn't destroyed him at the election booth.

In an interview with the Monitor in his Parliament building office, Mr. Fraser talked about how he governs australia and what he feels are Australia's hopes and expectations regarding the current resources boom.

Mr. Fraser says he has had to play tough with the state because they don't have the capacity to raise their own revenue. "When you've got one government . . . having the responsibility to raise taxes and pass some of those monies over to another . . . , well obviously you're going to have a difficult relationship. . . ."

Mr. Fraser says he has had to be tough with the unions because in some ways they have become too strong. "When they use their power irresponsibly and without any concern for the community good," he explains, they are too powerful. However, Mr. Fraser also feels he has public support to flex the government's muscle in front of the unions. He points to the actions earlier this year when Quantas employees went on strike and stranded both Australians and foreigners.

"We put in our Air Force to lift people across the Tasman (from New Zealand) a month or two ago," he elaborates, "and in the past the public would have criticized that, i think, very heavily. But it was broadly accepted and very well received by the community. I think we got that acceptance because of the repugance that many feel at the bullying and unreasonable tactics of many powerful trade unions."

In spite of his threats to use monetary muscle against the unions, the Liberal/National Country Party prime minister says he still hopes to bring interest rates down. Since home ownership is considered by most Australians to be a constitutional right, interests rates are often politically sensitive. But , Mr. Fraser says, rates could come down from their lofty levels, "if the governments reduce their demands on money markets. . . . That can relieve some pressure."

Critics of Mr. Fraser say he is too cozy with business interests, that the Melbourne clubs pull the strings in Canberra. Rather, Mr. Fraser points out, his party's economic philosophy is basically free enterprise. "What individuals and companies can do," he espouses, "they should be allowed and encouraged to do. . . ."

He also argues that the business community shouldn't have to foot more taxes, such as a resources rent, as demands for new social services crop up because of the new projects. He reasons that corporations already pay an average of 60 cents on the profit dollar in taxes and shouldn't have to pay more. Australians will benefit from the new projects by getting jobs, he maintains.

The prime minister disagrees with critics that the boom will alter the social fabric of the nation. "It will lead to the establishment and development of some highly profitable new communiies where wages will be high and oportunities will be quite considerable," he says, "but that's been a part of Australian life since the gold rush. We're an adaptable community. . . ."

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