Australia's Hawke: new leader trains eagle eye on economy

After leading the Australian Labor Party to its biggest victory in 40 years, the charismatic and controversial Bob Hawke is picking up the reins of government firmly . . . but cautiously.

In both foreign and domestic policies, Mr. Hawke insists he will proceed slowly. In his victory speech on election night, Hawke stressed that his government would be committed to national reconciliation - the dominant theme of his election campaign.

''We're not going to move quickly because I believe that what the people of Australia want from the incoming government is calmness and a sense of assurance.''

But the former union federation leader considers Australia's high unemployment (about 10 percent), inflation (about 11 percent), and negative growth to be the most serious problems facing his government. And these may well require some swift action.

''The first and overwhelming priority is to take steps to turn the economy around,'' he said after the election March 5.

The prime minister-designate's immediate objective is to hold an ''economic summit'' of employers, trade unions, and state governments. He has set this for early April.

Even before such a summit, Hawke is likely to have to act to stabilize interest rates and to prevent a run on the currency. In the two weeks before the vote, an estimated $1.5 billion in ''hot money'' left the country, as speculators heeded warnings by Liberal ministers that a Labor government would devalue Australia's dollar by 15 percent. The incoming treasurer, Paul Keating, met Sunday with treasury and reserve bank authorities to coordinate monetary policy.

The Labor government worries that it could face a ''strike of capital'' much as the Whitlam Labor government (1972-75) did. The new government intends to regulate nonbanking financial institutions and to keep control of banks and interest rates as much as possible. It is unlikely to proceed with the defeated Liberal government's plan to allow entry of up to 10 foreign banks.

Hawke's government is likely to take a somewhat tougher line on foreign investment in Australia than did Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. The Fraser government had adopted what were originally Labor proposals to require at least 50 percent Australian equity in mining ventures in the country, and Australian supervision of foreign investment in rural land development.

Hawke also plans to give Australia a national bill of rights, based on those in the US Constitution. This plan is certain to be opposed by the two non-Labor state governments. They protest that this would be an invasion of state sovereignty and a case of rampant socialism.

However, the nation's new leader does not fit in the traditional socialist mold. Hawke calls himself a social democrat and acknowledges the role of the non-government sector.

''Generally speaking, it is better that business be run by the private sector in Australia,'' he has said.

Unlike his predecessors as prime minister, Mr. Fraser and Gough Whitlam, Hawke is unlikely to take a rapid series of overseas trips to meet world leaders.

Labor needed a national swing of about 1.5 percent to win control of government. It won an even larger share - more than 5 percent - and majority of around 25 in the new House of Representatives. The composition of the 64-seat Senate remained virtually unchanged, with the Australian Democratic Party holding the balance between Labor and Liberals.

Mr. Fraser formally stepped down Sunday after eight years as prime minister. He also announced his resignation from the Liberal Party leadership, throwing the top post in the party open to challenges from colleagues such as Treasurer John Howard and former Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock.

The one state that voted firmly against Hawke was Tasmania. Hawke has opposed plans to build a dam in a wilderness area in the southwestern part of the state.

In his victory speech, Hawke told Tasmanians: ''I want to give you my assurance . . . that my government will honor the promises we have made in respect of Tasmania. The dam will not go ahead, but that said, you are concerned legitimately with issues of adequacy of power supplies and of employment.'' His party has said it would fund employment-creation projects and alternative electricity supplies for the island state of Tasmania.

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