Australia's 'Mr 25 per cent' takes a lead in the polls

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The Independent Online
PAUL KEATING'S first anniversary as Prime Minister has seen him achieve one of the most astonishing reversals of fortune in Australian politics. From being one of the country's most unpopular politicians a year ago, he is now the preferred prime minister over John Hewson, the opposition leader, according to opinion polls.

How long that will last is now another question. With a general election due early next year, Dr Hewson launched a revamped package of economic policies to coincide with Mr Keating's anniversary in a move which is likely to turn the campaign into one of the most closely fought contests in years.

When the Labor Party dumped Bob Hawke, the most electorally successful prime minister in its history, a few days before Christmas last year and installed Mr Keating as leader, there were those in its ranks who feared the party had indulged in an act of collective political madness.

As Mr Hawke's chief economic minister, and the architect of policies which ended in the recession, Mr Keating was known as 'Mr 25 per cent' because of his chronic unpopularity in opinion polls. The first such poll in January, after Mr Keating's accession, confirmed the pattern. The Labor government trailed the opposition Liberal Party by 14 points, with Dr Hewson ahead of Mr Keating by 13 points.

But shortly before Mr Keating's first anniversary on 20 December, the same poll showed the government three points ahead of the Liberals and Mr Keating four points ahead of Dr Hewson. Another poll gave Mr Keating and the government still wider leads.

The Prime Minister has managed to claw the government's way back in spite of a relentlessly increasing unemployment rate, now more than 11 per cent, record foreign debt and other poor economic indicators.

Mr Keating, for eight years the Treasurer (Finance Minister) whom Australians loved to hate, has done so by virtually re-selling himself as a man with a broad political spectrum who is more prepared than the reticent Mr Hawke to take strong, even radical, stands on such issues as republicanism, Aboriginal rights, and violence in films, videos and television.

While Mr Hawke never raised the question of the monarchy, Mr Keating has put it firmly on the political agenda by saying - well before the Royal family's spate of problems - that he would like Australia to be a republic by the turn of the century.

His speech to Aborigines in Sydney three weeks ago, to launch the 1993 International Year of the World's Indigenous People, was praised as the frankest of its kind by an Australian leader when he called for an 'act of recognition' by white Australians: 'Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases, the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers . . . It was our ignorance and our prejudice, and our failure to imagine these things being done to us.'

It was Dr Hewson's launch a year ago of an ambitious economic blueprint which triggered the Labor Party's panic in switching to Mr Keating. But Dr Hewson, a former economics professor, has never matched Mr Keating's innate skills in the political bearpit.

His blueprint was a mixture of latter- day Thatcherism including extensive income tax cuts, an all-inclusive VAT-type tax and billions of dollars of cuts in public spending, especially on unemployment and welfare. It proved to be a political lemon. Dr Hewson compounded his unpopularity by off-the-cuff remarks which insulted the Catholic Church, welfare bodies, business leaders and people who rent, rather than own, their homes.

In the wake of worsening opinion polls for the Liberals, Dr Hewson drastically revised his package last week in a bid to present himself as a more caring leader. He went against all his previous declarations by announcing food and child care would be dropped from the VAT and that 3bn Australian dollars ( pounds 1.3bn) would be spent on public works to stimulate the economy.

Mr Keating instantly dismissed the relaunch as 'shonky' (bogus). There have been indications, none the less, that Dr Hewson's revisions have been enough to reshape the contest for the election by inducing more Australians to examine his offer sympathetically. Mr Keating is under intense pressure over the current holiday period to come up with a new initiative if he is to win the poll, which seems likely to be held by early March.