Hewson in hustings 'jobs for all' pledge

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The Independent Online
FLANKED by a group of Australians who said they represented victims of the recession, John Hewson, the opposition leader, yesterday formally launched his campaign to become prime minister on 13 March with a pledge to return the country to full employment.

On a day when opinion polls showed the ruling Labor Party narrowing the opposition's lead, Mr Hewson dispensed with tradition by choosing an American- style launch in Sydney which played on emotion rather than promises.

One by one, a small businesswoman, a single mother, a housewife, a farmer and a disabled man walked on stage at the Wesley Centre and described how their lives had been turned upside down under the Labor government led by Paul Keating.

A Brisbane hairdresser choked back tears as she said: 'My life has been more like a soap opera over the past five years.' The farmer blamed the government for high costs which had almost ruined him, and the disabled man complained of having had to wait seven months for an operation.

Then Mr Hewson's wife, Carolyn, a Sydney merchant banker, walked into the spotlight to introduce her husband as 'absolutely courageous, absolutely dedicated and absolutely honest'.

Mr Hewson, leader of the Liberal Party, the senior partner in the conservative opposition coalition, followed her on stage to rousing cheers from an audience of party faithful, attacked Labor's record after 10 years in power and blamed the party for betraying Australia's 'forgotten people' by producing unemployment of more than 1 million.

Unlike Mr Keating, in his launch last week, Mr Hewson offered no new public spending commitments. Instead, he defended his plan to revive the Australian economy through tax reform, including his controversial proposal for a 15 per cent VAT- style goods and services tax. Mr Hewson claimed Australia had lost jobs and business to New Zealand, which had already introduced such a tax.

Mr Hewson made no response to a highlight of Mr Keating's launch, his promise of a referendum in which Australians could choose by the end of the decade whether to become a republic. Mr Hewson deliberately delayed his launch until yesterday in the hope that it would give the Liberals a final boost with less than a fortnight of campaigning left.

The immediate boost, however, came for Mr Keating as he campaigned in Perth on the other side of the country. An opinion poll published yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, of Melbourne, showed Labor trailing the opposition by five points compared with 12 a fortnight earlier. Of those questioned, 45 per cent said they would be worse off under Mr Hewson's tax plans compared with 25 per cent who supported them. A separate poll yesterday narrowed the opposition's lead to just one point.

Mr Keating also welcomed official figures yesterday which showed Australia's current-

account deficit had improved to its lowest level in five years and that the country recorded a trade surplus of 678m Australian dollars ( pounds 340m) in January. He cited this as evidence that the economy was reviving.

The Australian Council of Social Services, a leading welfare body, criticised Mr Hewson's launch as 'an unacceptable exercise in exploitation', adding Mr Hewson's plans involved cutting direct payments to the unemployed by Adollars 1bn and squeezing spending on the health system.