Hewson rallies with passion as Australia is poised to vote: Robert Milliken joins the campaign trail of the man who expects to end 10 years of Labor government

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The Independent Online
PASSION is a word few people associate with John Hewson, the Australian opposition leader. But as he stood in the street with his sleeves rolled up before a roaring crowd yesterday, he managed to inject plenty of passion into one of the final days of the country's general election campaign.

Mr Hewson, the Liberal Party leader, now seems convinced by opinion polls and the mood of the country that he will become prime minister after the election next Saturday, by dislodging Paul Keating and the ruling Labor Party from 10 years of power. If he is proved right, Australians will have as their leader a man who they have watched transform himself over the past five weeks from a dry academic economist into an energetic politician driven by a will to win.

His campaign yesterday took him to Melbourne, Australia's second largest and most politically volatile city, where a handful of marginal seats will help to decide the result. Here, as in other state capitals over the past week, Mr Hewson held an old fashioned street rally, to show voters in an age of stage-managed television campaigns he is prepared to expose himself to ordinary people.

In three days, he had flown 5,000 miles around Australia from Sydney to Perth to Melbourne, getting four hours' sleep a night, catching flu and almost losing his voice. He has set himself such a pace since he emerged from a working-class childhood to become an economist in Washington, a professor in Sydney and now, at 46, prime ministerial contender. For much of that time, before he became an MP six years ago, Mr Hewson has held down two jobs at once, teaching and advising, making himself considerably wealthy in the process.

Now he is asking Australians to vote for radical and rapid economic change, based on his unswerving, Thatcherite belief in free-market forces.

He has promised to cut income and business taxes in return for a VAT-type goods and services tax (GST) on spending, to deregulate wages, to cut tariffs to zero by the year 2000 and to achieve a common market between Australia and New Zealand within a year. And, although polls indicate many Australians are unhappy with some of his proposals, he is gambling that enough will be fed up with a decade of Labor and unemployment of 11 per cent to vote the opposition Liberal-National coalition into power.

More than 3,000 people were waiting for him at lunchtime in central Melbourne yesterday, fewer than the 5,000 who turned out in both Adelaide and Perth, where discontent with Labor is high. In the packed Melbourne shopping precinct, people waved placards saying, 'Save Australia - Sack Keating' and 'Hewson - No Heart'. Mr Hewson, in turn, chose to chant slogans back to the crowd. Liberal Party strategists have advised him to just keep attacking Mr Keating and avoid making mistakes.

This is why he has chosen the safe formula of the street rally: when questioned in the confines of television and radio studios, Mr Hewson has already made big mistakes by being unable to explain details of how his GST would work.

Yesterday, he repeated his promise to create 2 million jobs by the end of the decade, and accused Mr Keating of turning Australia into a nation of queues, 'dole queues, hospital queues and university queues'. When he talked of the problems of children receiving proper education, a woman standing in a group of Liberal supporters shouted: 'How would you know? You left your kids.'

This was a reference to Mr Hewson's first marriage which broke down when he moved out of his Sydney home in 1985, leaving his wife and three children. His first wife, Margaret, later gave an interview in which she said he told her: 'You would not be able to cope with being a political wife.'

Mr Hewson's second wife, Carolyn, is a merchant banker who has emerged as a decisive, articulate partner with firm views on her role if her husband wins. In Perth on Tuesday, she took his place in a radio interview after his voice gave out, answered questions about economic policy and said she would expect to be different from past prime ministers' wives by having 'part-time' input. 'Hillary Clinton has set a pretty good example'.

The vote on Saturday is likely to be negative, but it will be influenced by the economic issue: either against Mr Hewson's GST or against Mr Keating's high unemployment. If Mr Hewson wins enough votes over the latter, he will take Australians into a new era of austerity. He signalled as much to the Melbourne crowd yesterday when he told them: 'There have been too many bubbles in the glass of champagne.'

(Photograph omitted)