Stars fail to shine for Keating

Australian general election: `Crocodile Dundee' underwhelmed as PM courts drop-out haven

ROBERT MILLIKEN

Byron Bay, New South Wales

To open the critical final week of the Australian election campaign, Paul Keating drove to Byron Bay, whose most famous resident, Paul Hogan, is occasionally glimpsed by the sun-seekers and alternative-lifestyle followers who have made the town their mecca.

He and Linda Kozlowski, his co-star in Crocodile Dundee, were married six years ago at the A$4m (pounds 2m) mansion they built in the hills behind Byron Bay after the film's success. Were they still in residence? "Oh, yes," said Tom Mooney, publican of the Great Northern Hotel, where the Prime Minister was giving a campaign speech. "I was there the other day. But they're not coming to town for this."

Nor, it seemed, were many other locals. Mr Keating's visit was a last- minute affair, with no advance fanfare. As he enters the countdown towards the election on Saturday, when he will be fighting to win a sixth term for the Labor Party, the Prime Minister's minders have embarked on a hit- and-run strategy, criss-crossing the country to shore up the Labor vote in crucial marginal constituencies which could mean the difference between political life and death for Mr Keating and Labor.

Byron Bay, on the New South Wales north-east coast, is the centre of Richmond, one such constituency. Next door is another, called Page. Until 1990, Richmond and Page were held firmly by the National Party, the junior and more conservative partner in the opposition Liberal-National coalition. In that year, Labor candidates narrowly won the two seats in an upset which reflected the demographic revolution taking place in this zone of sparkling beaches, rolling green hinterland and semi-tropical rainforests.

For generations, timber cutters and dairy and cattle farmers had ruled the region, making it an enclave of conservative politics. Then in the Seventies and Eighties, hippies, backpackers and well-heeled refugees from the cities discovered the area's charms, edging out the older settlers.

Nimbin, a small town 25 miles east of Byron Bay, has become a Seventies time-warp. Police have given up arresting people for growing cannabis on their farms. Instead, they swoop on the plantations in helicopters, rip the plants out and fly them away. Byron Bay is more upmarket, a town where smart restaurants jostle for space with crowded shops, bars and beach lodges.

In both seats, the environment and preservation of the coastline and forests from over-development are bigger issues than unemployment, which, at 12 per cent, is 4 points higher than the national average.

But then, as Oliver Dunne, a Byron Bay lawyer and town planner, explained: "People don't come here to get jobs. They come here to drop out of jobs."

After six years in control of the New Age paradise, Labor looks in trouble. Opinion polls report a swing of almost 2 per cent against the party in Richmond and Page, enough to lose them. Mr Keating desperately needs to hold both seats to stay in power: Labor already faces a strong negative swing in New South Wales, the most populous state, where the party holds two-thirds of the state's seats in the federal parliament.

Mr Keating and his wife, Annita, arrived in Byron Bay looking fresh and relaxed. Every main newspaper in the country had splashed photographs of the Prime Minister being mobbed the previous day by screaming convent schoolgirls in Sydney. John Howard, the opposition leader, was relegated to inside pages at a kindergarten. It was a media image that money could not have bought for Mr Keating.

Yet national opinion polls flashed danger signals, showing Labor trailing the opposition by 6 points, enough to lose resoundingly on Saturday.

As the Keatings and their minders stepped off their bus outside the Great Northern Hotel, a small crowd of passers-by, including surfers and women wearing beads around their necks and rings on their toes, broke into spontaneous applause. Merv Reynolds, 86, dressed in a blue suit and striped tie, stood out from the rest. "I've been a Labor Party member for more than 70 years," he said. "I think Keating is a terrific man, one of the cleverest politicians in my lifetime. This day is the crowning glory of my life."

As the Prime Minister walked into the hotel, Mr Reynolds shook his hand. Mr Keating spoke unprompted for 40 minutes to a luncheon gathering of party faithful. He played the environmental card for all it was worth, describing how Labor had helped to save wilderness areas and contrasting it with what he said would happen if the National Party regained control: "A time of rickety roads, a few cows and a National Party sign hanging on a tree. That's the world they want."

It was an entertaining speech, which might have had more electoral impact if he had made it from the back of a lorry to the eclectic crowd around the corner at Byron Bay beach. Such public speeches have long since died on the Australian political scene. Mr Keating's appearance was enough to get his image on local newspaper front pages and television screens. But he did not stay long enough even to do a walkabout to the Beach Hotel, the pub where Hogan sometimes hangs out.

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