Australian Election Campaign Revs Up Amid Voters' Groans

Labor Party takes heat on economy, Liberals try to push a new tax

TWO pugnacious, number-crunching babyboomers are slugging it out to be Australia' prime minister. And the country couldn't seem to care less.

The contenders are the razor-tongued current prime minister, Paul Keating, and the glib leader of the Liberal-National Coalition, John Hewson.

Two weeks before the March 13 election, the two are running even. In late February Dr. Hewson was ahead 49 percent to Mr. Keating's 42 percent, according to a Morgan-Gallup poll. Hewson's lead is now just one point: 43 to 42 percent.

Australia's Labor Party has been in power for 10 years and is being blamed for hard times, including 11 percent unemployment. Analysts say the party is out of gas. The opposition says it is time for Keating to go.

The opposition is offering a clean slate - but a radical one. Its plan for getting the economy rolling again, Fightback Mark II, includes a 15 percent goods-and-services tax (GST) that replaces seven other taxes, massive overhaul of the labor-management relations system, and faster deregulation and privatization of industries.

But "there's no great enthusiasm for Hewson and the GST; people want change more than they hate the GST," says Bruce Wolpe, political analyst for Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm.

The jockeying has been going on unofficially for more than a year, since Hewson released his original Fightback! package. The two men, who sit facing each other at a long table during Parliament sessions, have been sparring over the GST for months. Opposing strategies

Hewson promises to "end the recession," and says his GST will add 2 million jobs and save people money.

Keating's priority is also jobs, but he would create them through public works projects, investment in training and retraining, and incentives for business. He recently dropped the corporate tax rate from 39 percent to 33 percent.

Under the parliamentary system, Keating could have called the election any time until May. Conventional wisdom has it that politicians call elections when the economic picture brightens. But the indicators continued to worsen amid forecasts of persistent high unemployment.

On Feb. 7, Keating suddenly called the election, catching the Liberals off guard. But it was so unexpected, say observers, that even his own staff wasn't ready. "He forfeited free time on TV because there was nothing to run," says Ernie Chaples, a political science professor at Sydney University.

The five-week campaign is half over. The candidates have talked on top of each other on TV debates and met the public at shopping malls. The campaign has been largely without sparks, although Hewson has been pelted with tomatoes.

Keating's policy launch Feb. 24 was a simple, low-key affair. No flags, no party banners, just a sober Keating in front of a blue curtain with "Australia" in huge letters. At a separate arts policy launch, Keating unveiled a vision of a more multicultural Australia, one reaching out to its Asian-Pacific neighbors.

The opposition's policy launch on March 1, on the other hand, looked like a US political convention: lots of flags, party posters, an emphasis on the family. People told their hard-luck stories and blamed the Labor government.

The Liberals have come close to winning before, but as some observers have said, their internal squabbles at the last minute have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Their margins have narrowed with each election, and this time the campaign is more professional. Negative campaigning

The party has also introduced American-style negative campaigning. One TV commercial provoked public outrage: In it a gun was pointed at a person in a crowd. The message, referring to unemployment, said, "You could be next."

Keating has slammed the GST, rather than running on Labor's record.

He took heart from the resignation of Canada's Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (over, among other things, an unpopular GST). And his standing got a boost this week with news that trade performance was the best in five years, that private sector spending was up 9 percent, and that inflation had fallen.

"The election will be close," says Gerard Henderson, director of the Sydney Institute think tank. "The battle will be fought in marginal seats." That is where Labor's organization is best, and how it has pulled off close wins before.

The public seems tired of the whole thing. "A lot of people who are really looking for the lesser of two evils have little faith that either party will deliver on promises," says Mr. Chaples.

"Who's going to win?" asks a suburban newsstand owner, rolling his eyes. "I don't know and I don't care. I just want it over."

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