`New right' in Australia challenges Hawke and unions

A new political force is making waves in Australia. Dubbed the ``new right,'' this loose grouping of hard-line, action-oriented conservatives is confronting Prime Minister Robert Hawke's Labor government with challenges in the political, economic, and trade-union fields.

The new right has taken the credit for a recent upsurge in industrial disputes and confrontations with trade unions, in which management has taken the initiative to try to curb union power.

Last month, Charles Copeman, chief executive of the large Peko-Wallsend mining corporation, sacked 1,200 workers at an iron-ore mine in Australia's remote northwestern area. Mr. Copeman ignored directions by the state arbitration commission to end the lockout. But later, he obeyed a court order to start work again.

However, Copeman continues to sack individual workers and shuffle jobs, keeping the union firmly on the defensive. Copeman's reasons for sacking his iron-ore workers were to restructure the work force and eliminate restrictive union work practices, which he claims cost the company great lost earnings. The new right has supported similar actions by individual employers battling unions.

The leadership of the opposition Liberal Party, though not the majority of its members, support the new right's attempts to reduce union power and decentralize the industrial relations system. And much of Australia's conservative press welcomes the emergence of the new right, because it provides ``real political debate.'' But Liberals are not as supportive of the new right's social policies, which include drastically reducing welfare and cutting Asian migration to Australia.

The ruling Labor Party has gone on the attack. Copeman's tough stand was strongly criticized by Trade Minister John Dawkins and Mr. Hawke, who described Copeman as an ``economic lunatic'' and ``political troglodyte.''

In a recent interview, Hawke said, ``For Australia to think that it can put a barrier around itself and isolate itself from international economic courses is an economic absurdity. . . . That's against Australia's interests.''

Since his election in 1983, Hawke has moved the Labor government toward the political center, introducing economic deregulation to a greater extent than contemplated by the previous Liberal government. This has prompted the Liberal Party to go further to the right -- but, apparently, not nearly far enough for the new right.

So far, opinion polls show the new right enjoys only 15 percent of public support. But analysts are keenly watching the development of the movement, whose leaders are articulate, able to get their views into the news media, and occupy top posts in business and agriculture.

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