Australian election: rough-and-tumble leaders battle over jobs, union power

Australia has never before had a political leader with as little parliamentary experience as Robert Hawke, new chief of the Labor Party. But the former trade-union head - who is as flamboyant as his nemesis, Malcolm Fraser, is reserved - is roaring toward the March 5 vote as the man most Australians want to see elected prime minister, according to opinion polls.

Even with such favorable polls, Bob Hawke would have to be made of strong mettle to take charge of Labor just 29 days before balloting. But he has had plenty of opportunities to prove he is tough.

Last year the aspiring politician gave his blessing to a ''warts and all'' biography that detailed his history of womanizing, drinking, and foul language. Many thought the biography might squelch his chances of achieving the prime ministership. But he insisted those bad habits were behind him. He gave up drinking when he started his race for Parliament, and there has never been a suggestion that he has behaved with anything other than propriety since he won that race two years ago.

Hawke has never hid his ambition to become prime minister - to the annoyance of some longtime Labor politicians who saw him as unqualified. He has had to fend off jibes from some in his own party who resent his unwillingness to serve a long parliamentary apprenticeship.

The Labor chief explains that ever since he recovered from a serious motor bike accident, which reportedly put him close to death in his college years, he has been determined that ''in whatever I did, I would try and go flat out.''

Hawke obtained arts and law degrees from the University of Western Australia in Perth. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he lived up to his reputation as a robust scholar, sportsman, and reveler.

On returning to Australia, he won a scholarship to work on a doctorate at the Australian National University, but after six months he became a research officer in the Australian Council of Trade Unions. He proved successful as an ACTU advocate before the Industrial Commission, winning large wage increases.

Eventually Hawke became president of the ACTU, which kept him almost constantly in the public eye. While Gough Whitlam was Labor prime minister, Hawke became president of the Labor Party. He was a regular member of Australia's delegation to the International Labor Organization and supported Israel at a time when other Labor members were trying to take an ''evenhanded'' policy in the Middle East.

Several times he could have left the ACTU for politics. But he refused for a long time, calculating that ''as president of the ACTU I will always be involved in decisions. If I get into Parliament, I'd be involved in decisions only when we get in (to government).''

His sense of timing has often proved right. His 10-year leadership of the union, for instance, coincided with a period of high strike activity, and it was usually Mr. Hawke who carved out a reasonably satisfactory solution between workers and employers.

Hawke the Labor leader is banking on that memory of Hawke the conciliator in the current campaign. He is basing his campaign on his and Labor's ability to work with unions to reach an accommodation on wages and prices. His election theme: ''bringing Australia together.''

But Hawke's greatest asset - his reputation as a union advocate and successful mediator - is also his most vulnerable point.

Prime Minister Fraser believes he will be able to accuse Hawke of being a creature of the left-wing-dominated trade union movement. And despite Hawke's popularity, there is no doubt that unions are currently the most unpopular part of the political landscape.

In fact, it was Labor's left-wing socialists who denied - by three votes - his attempt for leadership last July. Hawke stands to the right of center in the Labor Party.

Although he is a popular and charismatic figure, much of this year's election has been turning on whether he is a suitable person to be running the country.

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