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

The son of comfortably wealthy parents, he could have settled down to a prosperous and easy life on the family's grazing property in Victoria. But that wasn't enough for Malcolm Fraser. ''I don't believe life is meant to be easy,'' he later explained.

Today Prime Minister Fraser, a lifelong politician, faces a far-from-easy challenge: a March 5 election for which he is trailing in the polls and opposed by the country's most popular politician, Robert Hawke.

Twice before ''Freezer'' Fraser (the nickname is a reference to both his accent and his character) has come from behind in the opinion polls to win. In 1977 and 1980 he led his party to victory by keeping his head and attacking the policies or personalities of the opposition with intense ferocity.

He has held onto the top office for seven years - making him second only to Sir Robert Menzies as Australia's longest-serving prime minister.

But the big man from Victoria has had his share of difficulties, too. Although first elected to the federal Parliament when in his 20s, he had to wait 18 years before he was given his first ministerial post - as minister for the Army.

A serious setback to his career occurred in 1971 when, as minister for defense, he had a falling out with John Gorton, then prime minister. Fraser resigned from the ministry, but his resignation created a crisis that eventually led to Gorton's removal from the prime ministership.

A politician who did not hide his ambition, Fraser gained a reputation for ruthlessness as first Gorton and then Billy Snedden, a later Liberal Party leader, were disposed of in party-room votes to make way early in 1975 for Fraser's own election as party leader.

It was later that year that he began the political maneuvering that led to the dismissal of Gough Whitlam's Labor government and the beginning of his own period as prime minister.

That was also when Bob Hawke, then leader of the trade union movement, described Fraser as the ''cutlery man of politics - he knifes his colleagues, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and he speaks with a forked tongue.''

Throughout his career Fraser has been to the right of his Liberal Party. He has described himself as a ''classic conservative.''

He has stuck to the basic principle he described in an interview before he became party leader: ''One of the worst sins of government or of a political party is the mere pursuit of popularity. . . . A government can never be loved but it must earn respect, for without that a government will certainly fall.''

As prime minister, he introduced a tough monetary policy, intended to drag inflation down. He sought to balance the budget. His government cut back on the growth of the public service and slashed welfare and urban programs that had been introduced by the Whitlam government. In foreign policy he took a strong anti-Soviet line, participating fully in sanctions against Moscow for its invasion of Afghanistan.

He has a reputation as a ruthless campaigner at election time. In 1977 he offered a ''fistful of dollars'' in advertisements for a tax cut, a cut that did not survive long once he was reelected.

In 1980 he won the election with a final-week advertizing blitz against an alleged Labor Party capital gains tax, a tax the Labor Party had denied it intended to introduce. The fears aroused by the Liberal campaign were sufficiently strong to turn votes around to the Liberals in two key states.

Fraser has entered the present campaign without any spectacular promises to the electorate. He is campaigning vigorously on the theme: ''We're not waiting for the world'' - meaning that his government intends to try to reflate the Australian economy in advance of the world recovery.

But this time the Labor Party's lead in the opinion polls is larger (about 4 percent) and his opponent more formidable. It will be a tough task to turn the Labor lead around. But then, ''Life wasn't meant to be easy.''

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