Keating, Opposition Engage in Battle of Economic Wills

Aussie election seen as test vote on new prime minister

IN probably the most bizarre trial in Australian history, a recent current affairs television program charged Prime Minister Paul Keating with murdering the economy.

As it turned out, the "jurors" - a panel of voters from his own electorate - found Mr. Keating of the Labor Party not guilty.

Keating will be hoping voters in the electorate of Wills, a district in the state of Victoria, feel the same way when they go to the polls on Saturday to elect a member of Parliament to replace former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The former Labor Party leader has retired from politics to try to make money as a media personality.

Wills, which encompasses several working-class communities, has long been considered a "safe" Labor seat. In the last general election in 1990, however, Mr. Hawke barely won. And now with unemployment in the electorate reaching 20 percent, the Wills seat is considered vulnerable.

In fact, the Wills by-election is shaping up as an important political test for both Keating and the opposition Liberal Party leader, John Hewson. Both men have invested large amounts of time, money, and energy to support the election campaign.

The election presents a potential hazard for the prime minister, since it gives voters a chance to disapprove of Keating after he unseated Bob Hawke in a Dec. 19 vote of the Labor Party.

"It's a referendum on Paul Keating's coup against Bob Hawke and to the extent to which the party was justified in making the change," says Richard Herr, a political scientist at the University of Tasmania. By-elections are notoriously difficult for the government to win.

"The voters can send a message but not change the government," says Ernie Chaples, who does polling for the Labor Party in New South Wales.

But the election also contains an element of danger for Mr. Hewson, Dr. Herr notes, since some commentators will maintain it is a vote on Hewson's proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST).

"Keating sees a real prospect of destabilizing Hewson if he can demonstrate public rejection of the GST," Herr says.

The race has also showcased the parties' differences on other issues. For example, Hewson has long proposed tariffs be eliminated. Keating, who in the past has endorsed tariff reductions, has now decided it will be necessary to maintain a 15 percent to 25 percent tariff on textiles, footwear, and clothing. This seems to have been aimed at gaining the approval of the workers at several textile and apparel factories in Wills. After the reversal, the Sydney Morning Herald cited credibility problems in its h eadline: "Tariffs Blunder Hurts Keating."

Wills's large number of new immigrants inevitably raised the question of Australian immigration policy. Nearly 33 percent of Wills residents speak a language other than English as their native tongue. The Liberal Party has already stated it wants to see a reduction in the number of new immigrants. The government has decided to wait until after the election to announce the new immigration quotas.

"Family reunions is a contentious issue and Labor is doing the smart thing by avoiding it," Mr. Chaples says.

But by far the biggest issue is unemployment. "Nothing comes close to jobs as an issue," says Graham Morris, the campaign manager for the Liberal candidate in Wills. "There are a lot of angry and frightened people."

To try to counter disillusionment, Labor is telling voters Keating's policy "is designed to stimulate the economy - to get things moving and create jobs," says Gary Gray, campaign coordinator for the Labor Party in Wills.

The Keating plan includes some generous handouts for Wills. The textile industry in the electorate will receive $51 million (Australian; US$39 million) for structural readjustment payments. The federal government is spending $75 million on road building in Wills and $10 million on rail transportation.

In addition, 17,000 low-income Wills parents received last week a family-assistance bonus of $125 to $175. "We think putting cash into the economy is the best way to stimulate it," Mr. Gray says.

Pre-election polls indicate Labor is marginally ahead. Whole communities of Greeks and Italians who migrated to Australia in the 1950s have always voted Labor. "We're saying, just this once vote Liberal," Mr. Morris says.

But there are 22 candidates, and the Liberals may see potential protest voters drawn away by a popular local football coach, Phil Cleary, who is running as an independent.

"If he were not there they would be voting for us," Morris says.

Instead, the final count will be decided on the basis of who the voters would prefer to see elected on a 1 to 22 basis. In a tight contest such as this, Australia's newest parliamentarian is just as likely to be a coach.

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