Labor's Keating Fights to Hold Job In Australia's Nose-to-Nose Race


AUSTRALIANS vote for a new government tomorrow after a tight, but unemotional race in which two top candidates hacked at each other's credibility - leaving voters unenthused about either.

After a five week campaign and billions of dollars in promises, Liberal-National party coalition challenger John Howard is clinging to a slim lead over Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Many pundits don't think Mr. Keating will close the gap and predict a narrow victory for Mr. Howard's Liberal-National Party coalition. A key reason: wide sentiment among Australians that 13 years of Labor government is more than enough.

Until a week ago, the coalition was winning the credibility battle comfortably. But after an inconclusive Feb. 25 televised debate and stumbles on the stump by a demure Howard, the pugnacious Keating had scrambled to within three percentage points, according to a Thursday poll.

''The Keating government has tried to combat a tired image,'' says Michael Jackson, a political scientist at the University of Sydney. ''But a lot of the electorate does think it's finally time for a change.''

Few pundits, however, seem willing to count Keating out. He staged a jet-propelled come-from-behind victory in 1993 to defeat the coalition. And he aims for a similar surprise tomorrow.

''I'm really enjoying this election,'' Keating told unionist supporters at a Melbourne rally last week. ''I'm loving it.''

But that exuberance has definitely not been shared by the Australian electorate. With few major policy differences between the two candidates to captivate voters, this year's election campaign has been quiet.

''The extraordinary thing about this election is that people are just not interested,'' says Elaine Thompson, a political scientist at the University of New South Wales. ''There is overt cynicism about leadership and government - and that's unusual for Australians.''

One indicator: Twenty percent of Australians in a poll this week said, if they had a choice, they would not vote. Voting is compulsory in Australia. There is a fine of A$20 for not voting.

One policy difference, however, is over whether Australia should become a republic - cutting its last formal ties with Britain - in time for the Olympic Games to be held in Sydney in 2000.

Keating muses over the embarrassment of having Queen Elizabeth open the Games. Polls show he has about 50 percent public support for the republic idea, though it has been much higher. Keating has promised a nonbinding plebiscite on the matter within months, if he is reelected.

Howard, by contrast, is a staunch, if-it-isn't-broken-don't-fix-it monarchist who cherishes Australia's historic link to Britain. He has promised a vote if elected, but few expect him or his government to battle for republic status.

Such issues, however, are beside the point to a good many Australians frustrated by the government's inability to deal with social ills from 8.5 percent unemployment, to crime, to youth suicide that is among the highest of Western nations.

Against that backdrop, the Australian campaign has evolved into one of leadership and credibility. Keating has economic credibility, having actually met his job-creation targets, and has presided over three years of positive economic growth. And he has hitched Australia more firmly to Asia's economic dynamo.

But he broke several prior campaign promises. And while he is witty and often charming, Keating has ''high negatives'' in US-election parlance. He set a new standard in Australia's Parliament for acidic debate, calling various parliamentarians ''a guffawing hyena'' or ''a Christmas turkey.''

''I think he's clever, ruthless, and charismatic,'' says Dean Breccia, a jazz piano player waiting for a bus in downtown Sydney. ''He's not someone I admire - except for his tenacity. But I may vote for him because I think Howard is misdirected.''

By contrast, Howard is something like ''[US Senate majority leader] Bob Dole without the venom,'' Professor Jackson says. ''He's been there forever, taking some hard knocks, but projecting a sober consistency .....''

And that's enough for Sammy Seleem, a taxi driver in downtown Sydney who supports Howard. ''I'm going to vote for Howard. It's time for some fresh horses in there.''

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