It will be the most closely fought and bitter campaign since Labor came to power 10 years ago. An opinion poll published today indicates that the government would just win an election now, but another last week put the opposition coalition of Liberal and National parties ahead. Labor has a majority of five in the 148-seat House of Representatives.
A key factor in Mr Keating's choice yesterday of a March poll was a state election in Western Australia on Saturday, in which the Labor government was defeated. Such an outcome had been widely predicted in the wake of a public backlash against a series of scandals during the Eighties in which the state Labor government was embroiled in the disastrous business dealings of former Western Australian entrepreneurs such as Alan Bond.
Saturday's defeat ended a decade of Labor rule in Western Australia and with it the short reign of Carmen Lawrence, the state Premier and Australia's first female political leader. Dr Lawrence, 44, herself untarnished by the Western Australia 'WA Inc' scandals, was installed as party leader three years ago in a Labor attempt to recover ground from the damage caused by her male former colleagues, some of whom are now facing charges.
Dr Lawrence's personal popularity was insufficient to save Labor. But the swing against her government of about 2 per cent was not the landslide that pollsters and party strategists had predicted. The slim margin of the win by the opposition Liberal Party and its leader, Richard Court, is believed to have galvanised Mr Keating into launching the national election campaign promptly.
The election comes at a time when the 'Labor Decade', which saw Labor in power federally and in five of Australia's six states during the Eighties, is collapsing. The state Labor government in Victoria, the second most populous state, was swept from power five months ago and a Labor premier of South Australia recently resigned. In both states millions of dollars of investors' funds were lost in badly managed state banks.
The federal Labor government has sought to distance itself from the various state scandals but it has big problems of its own, notably unemployment at 11.3 per cent, the worst for 60 years. Fresh figures due this week could reveal more than 1 million Australians out of work. This will be the central issue of the campaign.
For Mr Keating, 49, it will be the first election as Prime Minister since he unseated Bob Hawke as party leader 14 months ago. Since then, he has managed to recover from the chronic unpopularity he suffered in his former job as Treasurer, in which he was the architect of policies which ended in the recession. As Prime Minister Mr Keating has done a U-turn on his former policies, replacing them with interventionist measures in a bid to revive the economy.
John Hewson, 46, the opposition leader, will also be fighting his first campaign as leader of the Liberals. A former economics professor, and less of a seasoned politician than Mr Keating, Dr Hewson has pledged radical economic reforms, the centrepiece of which is a controversial VAT-type consumption tax.
The two men have engaged in attacks on each other over their personal financial affairs. Mr Keating seized on revelations in a new biography of Dr Hewson by Christine Wallace, a Canberra journalist, that Dr Hewson exploited tax loopholes to pay income tax of 15 per cent during the Eighties. For his part, Dr Hewson suggested that Mr Keating's personal investment in a pig farm could have benefited from Labor government decisions. Mr Keating retorted that this was an 'unsustainable and outrageous slur'.
Mr Keating has also had to contend with an obviously embittered Bob Hawke, now retired from politics, sniping at his policies and predicting a Liberal victory. Mr Keating's response at the weekend was: 'The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.'