Cliff-hanger as Australia goes to polls

IF THE ruling Labor Party wins Australia's general election today, it will mark the country's first step towards becoming a republic. If the opposition Liberal-National coalition wins, radical economic reform is in prospect. As more than 11 million people prepare to vote after a five-week campaign, opinion polls agree only in indicating that the result could be close.

One poll last night gave Paul Keating's government 44.5 per cent, against 45 per cent for the opposition, led by John Hewson. Another poll put Labor ahead of the opposition by two points, just enough to retain power in the House of Representatives, where it has a majority of five. The polls indicate about one-fifth of voters remain uncommitted.

There was no such indecision among Australia's main metropolitan newspapers yesterday. In their pre-vote editorials, nine of the 10 papers called for a change of government. Most agreed that, after a decade in power, and with unemployment at 11 per cent, Labor had run out of steam.

In an editorial which read like a political obituary, the Age, of Melbourne, said Mr Keating would be judged well by history for his dominant role in the restructuring of the Australian economy under Labor during the 1980s. 'The recession brought about a loss of nerve, an uncertainty about the direction in which Australia should be headed.'

The sole pro-Labor voice came from the Telegraph-Mirror, a Sydney tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, all of whose other papers supported the opposition. The Sydney paper praised Mr Keating for showing 'vision and courage' since becoming Prime Minister after unseating Bob Hawke as Labor leader 15 months ago.

'The Prime Minister deserves the chance to demonstrate his leadership and implement his agenda without the shackles of the past.'

For Mr Keating, the main obstacle to achieving victory today is the figure of 1,052,000 unemployed in a country of 17 million people. This latest monthly figure, announced on Thursday, was a rise of 35,000 on the previous month, and the worst since the Depression.

Mr Keating's promise for a referendum by the end of the decade on Australia becoming a republic won approval. But Australians are likely to give it second place to their judgement on the country's economic future.

Unemployment has overwhelmed any electoral benefit Mr Keating might have gained from other economic indicators released during the campaign, including a rise in exports and business investment. Australia's economy has moved back into growth, for which Mr Keating can claim credit. Most Australians, though, remember him as the Treasurer (or finance minister) under Mr Hawke who brought what he once called 'the recession we had to have'.

For his part, Mr Hewson promises as his main economic reform a VAT-type goods and services tax (GST), which polls indicate many Australians find either confusing or unwelcoming. He has stayed silent on the republic question.

Both leaders returned yesterday to their constituencies in Sydney to await the result. Mr Hewson held a final press conference on the shores of Bondi Beach, in the heart of his electorate, where he spoke as if victory was already his. He promised not to renege on his policies when faced with the reality of power. 'We aren't going to go into government and change our minds and say things are worse than we feared.'

Mr Keating made a final impassioned plea to make the election a referendum on the GST: 'I don't believe Australians will vote for the GST any more than they will take the dog-eat- dog policies of the opposition that will turn Australian society on its head.'

(Photograph omitted)