Race row erupts as Keating struggles to close gap

ROBERT MILLIKEN

Sydney

The Australian general election battle shifted to the volatile state of Queensland yesterday, as fresh opinion polls showed the Labor Party struggling to reverse a potentially winning lead for the opposition Liberal-National coalition on Saturday.

Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, and John Howard, the opposition leader, found themselves campaigning in different parts of Brisbane yesterday as an opinion poll published in the Australian newspaper put the opposition parties once again 8 points ahead, a lead they had enjoyed early in the campaign before stumbling last week. A Sydney Morning Herald poll on Monday showed the opposition leading by 6 points.

Such a figure, if reflected in the actual voting on Saturday, would be enough to bring a resounding end to Labor's 13-year rule in Canberra. It is larger than the lead the opposition took into the final week of campaigning at the last election in 1993, before Mr Keating made a last- minute surge to score a shock victory.

His task of building enough momentum for a repeat performance this time is immense. But it is not impossible. In no other election has polling been more exhaustive. And, while the polls reflect widespread dissatisfaction among Australians at the thought of giving yet another term to a government which many feel has run its course, they are also sending out confusing signals. A third poll published today in the Bulletin, a national news magazine, shows the coalition's lead reduced to just 2 points.

In all the latest polls, a clear majority thought that Labor would actually win the election. Mr Keating also increased an earlier lead over Mr Howard on the question of who would make the best prime minister.

Mr Keating called on a cheering rally of party faithful in Brisbane yesterday to "claim it again for Labor", before heading to north Queensland - the conservative region known as the Deep North - where race has once again erupted as a campaign issue. To the embarrassment of the coalition, Bob Katter, the National Party candidate for the immense north Queensland constituency of Kennedy, complained on Monday that it was "nigh on impossible" to send children from his remote area to boarding schools "unless you're rich or unless you happen to be of Aboriginal descent".

His suggestion that Aborigines were a favoured race might have been written off at any other time as typical Deep North "redneckism". But it came barely a fortnight after an outcry over Mr Katter's earlier attack on what he described as the "slanty-eyed ideologues" of political correctness who, he said, "persecute ordinary, average Australians". Yesterday Mr Howard again declined to strip Mr Katter of his endorsement

Labor does not want to be reminded of its own difficulties on the race issue, involving Graeme Campbell, the maverick MP for the world's largest constituency, Kalgoorlie, which covers an area of Western Australia ten times the size of Britain. The party stripped Mr Campbell of endorsement last year after he appeared at meetings held by Australians Against Further Immigration, a group that advocates racially discriminatory immigration policies.

Campaigning by light aircraft and supported by his French wife, Michele, a Sorbonne graduate, the colourful Mr Campbell is fighting Kalgoorlie at this election as an independent and taking every opportunity to attack Mr Keating. The constituency, which he has held for 16 years, contains just 74,000 voters, most of them miners, farmers and Aborigines. But polls indicate that he enjoys enough popularity to snatch it from the official Labor candidate this time.

The frontier town of Kalgoorlie, Mr Campbell's base, is famous for its brothels as much as for its booming gold mines. Support for Mr Campbell came this week from Stella Strong, the proprietress of the Red House, a prominent establishment. She wrote to the Kalgoorlie Minercalling for a vote for Mr Campbell: "He has always treated my staff and me as equals."

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