'Vision thing' keeps Keating in contention

ROBERT MILLIKEN

Sydney

Campaigning in tropical north Queensland yesterday, Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, shrugged off a near miss when his helicopter was blown into tree-tops. "You'd get more twigs dropping on you in the Botanical Gardens," he said with bravado aimed at voters who go to the polls around the country on Saturday.

John Howard, the opposition leader, was making a final plea for power at the National Press Club in Canberra, where he called on Australians to ignore Mr Keating's warnings against dumping the 13-year-old Labor government for the unknown quantity of the conservative Liberal-National opposition.

As the campaign entered its twilight zone, yesterday's media images of the two leaders may be crucial in deciding how swing voters will mark their ballots.

The end of real ideological differences between the parties has turned the election into a presidential-style contest. That is why polls are so confusing, forecasting a coalition victory but disclosing a preference for Mr Keating as Prime Minister.

Conduct a poll among one of the most informed species of all, taxi drivers, and the Keating factor is more overwhelming: three out of four predict a Keating victory. A Pakistani-Australian in Sydney said: "John Howard, 'Little Johnnie'? No policies."

The two contestants havecharacteristics in common. Both were born into modest backgrounds in Sydney. Both had long stints at the helm of the economy, without formal financial qualifications: Mr Howard failed mathematics in his matriculation examination and Mr Keating left school at 15. Both are devoted husbands, fathers and political survivors.

The similarities end there. Mr Keating, 52, has known no other life than politics. He joined Labor as a teenager and won a seat in the federal parliament at 25 for the constituency that embraces the working-class Sydney suburb where he was born. His parents were third-generation Irish Catholic. Winston Churchill, Mr Keating says, was his inspiration: "He's the reason why I'm in public life."

Paul Keating has virtually run Australia since Labor came to power in 1983, first as Treasurer, or finance minister, then as Prime Minister after he unseated Bob Hawke in 1991.

An admirer of self-made men, he deregulated the economy and opened it up to international competition. An Irish Catholic patriot, he put republicanism on the agenda, calling on Australians to cut links with Britain and forge a closer identity with the Asia-Pacific region.

This "vision thing" is what Mr Keating claims distinguishes him most from John Howard.

Asked last week what was his vision for the year 2000, Mr Howard replied he would like to see Australia "comfortable and relaxed" about its history and future. It was uninspired, but Mr Howard has never been inspiring. He has never overcome his image as an earnest political foot-soldier, whose roots lie in Methodist middle-class Sydney where his father owned a petrol station.

John Winston Howard (Churchill, again, was the source of his middle name) graduated in law from the University of Sydney, and won a seat for the Liberal Party at 35. He was Treasurer in the coalition government of Malcolm Fraser, which Labor ousted in 1983. At 56, he is making his second run for the prime ministership, having lost the 1987 election to Bob Hawke. He quit as party leader and was reinstalled last year. The party is more united this time, but has never got its act together since the shock of its fifth successive defeat in 1993.

Mr Howard has challenged mainstream policies, such as Asian immigration, Medicare, the national health insurance scheme, environmentalism and republicanism.

If the coalition wins on Saturday, victory will come from a sentiment that Labor has had long enough in power. But if it loses yet again, it really will be Howard's End.

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