Australia's Hawke: political honeymoon ending?
Canberra — A month after its election to power, Australia's Labor government is grappling with two of the nation's prickliest issues - and the result may be one of the shortest political honeymoons on record for a new government.
* Prime Minister Robert Hawke last week moved to turn the proposed site of a hydroelectric dam in southwest Tasmania into a national park, thereby pushing a heated environmental and state's rights dispute over dam construction to a boil.
Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray, infuriated by Hawke's action, threatened to send Tasmanian state police to arrest any federal police who attempt to enter the dam site. Gray contends that Hawke's move is unconstitutional. Opposition politicians say the dispute over the dam issue has plunged the nation into constitutional crisis.
* On the economic front, Prime Minister Hawke is sponsoring a week-long national economic summit beginning April 11.
The summit will bring together 100 political and labor leaders, employers, and special interest group members to wrestle with the issues of unemployment (now above 10 percent) and inflation (12 percent).
Hawke says he hopes the conference will come to a ''consensus about what the most sensible paths are to follow.'' But he adds that the government, not conferees, will plot basic economic policy.
The two actions fly in the face of an early Labor decision to ''go slow'' on policy changes after the March 5 election that replaced the Liberal-Country coalition government with Labor leadership. The go-slow approach was adopted partly to allow its ministers to master their il8l,0,16l,5pnew portfolios, and partly to project an image of national reconciliation.
But the dam and economic issues have pushed the government into action. Environmentalists had campaigned against construction of the Tasmania dam. They claimed to have helped the government gain its substantial majority in the House of Representatives.
Over the past few weeks Mr. Hawke has written twice to Mr. Gray, offering funds for alternative electric power projects and for jobs for Tasmanians who might have received employment from dam construction. He also offered funds for workers laid off during potential federal-state negotiations over terms of an agreement. Finally he moved to turn all of southwest Tasmania into a national park under the national parks act. The area is already on a world heritage list of outstanding natural and cultural properties.
Mr. Gray has rejected all Hawke's approaches. He says his state simply won't allow any national interference on building of the dam, and noted that Tasmanians voted heavily for the Liberals, not Labor.
Both sides intend to refer the dispute to the Australian high court. However, Gray says construction will proceed unless the high court orders a halt. He has hired three senior lawyers (including a former federal attorney general and federal judge) to fight the case for Tasmania.
Hawke says one of the reasons behind the economic summit is to tell the nation's leaders in various fields that the economy is in a very bad state and that it won't improve until they start to work together to fix it.
''Unless you know just how difficult things are, you are not going to be in a position to make the decisions which are most likely to resolve that problem,'' he said.