Australia's leader struggles to hold power

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has begun reducing the number of parliament meetings to help keep him in the driver's seat of government.

Last July Fraser's Liberal-National Country Party coalition lost its majority in the Senate. And since then his former foreign minister, Andrew Peacock, has begun to challenge his leadership, winning some support among Senate members. Fraser is clearly concerned, as Senate Liberals decide who will lead the Liberal Party.

The prime minister began his maneuvering with parliament sessions last spring , when he reduced the budget session by several weeks. He has pared the current session down to 21 days from 36 last year.

Beginning last July, Fraser had to court the votes of an independent, small party called the Australian Democrats to pass legislation in the Senate. But the Democrats, with their middle-of-the-road philosphy, appear to be taking a tougher line on Liberal proposals this year.

The Democrats have indicated they will not vote against bills that would enact promises made by the Liberals in the last election. But they signal they will be toughter when it comes to nonbudget legislation, which they do not consider to be part of the government's electoral mandate.

The Democrats say they will oppose government legislation that would allow employers to stand down workers not involved in strikes, and bills designed to make it harder for the states to borrow independently of the federal government.

The only action the Fraser government plans to take in the face this situation is to put forward as little legislation as possible. It will not advance its budget plans until regular budget time.

In recent weeks former Foreign Minister Peacock has been critical of the Fraser government over its refusal to grant tax cuts and its inability to produce a package to help home buyers struck by high interest rates.

He also criticized government leaders for virtually conceding that the opposition Labor Party would win a by-election to be held next month when former Liberal Prime Minister William McMahon retires from parliament.

Peacock offered to help campaign in the by-election, an offer readily accepted by the state branch of the Liberal Party.

Fraser then changed his stand, saying he, too, thought the Liberals had a good chance of holding the McMahon's seat. McMahon won by less than 2 percent of the vote in the last general elections.

Fraser's future will depend to some extent on the party's performance in that election and on the outcome of the Victorian state election, slated for April. The Victorian state Liberals face prospects for defeat for the first time in over a quarter of a century. The last public-opinion poll shows the Liberals having 37 percent of the vote and the Labor Party 49 percent.

Victoria has always been regarded as ''the jewel in the Liberal Party crown.'' If the Liberals lose Victoria, there are likely to ba severe repercussions in the federal Liberal Party.

Both Fraser and Peacock are Victorians and will be campaigning in the state election and their performances will be closely watched by Liberal politicians nationwide.

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