It was a measure of just how close the vote was that, for a while last week, it appeared that Australia's closest federal election in 30 years would be decided by a few thousand voters in Kennedy, a far-north riding where floods had temporarily kept residents from reaching the polls. Most observers were predicting a hung parliament, with the balance of power likely held by one or two Independent MPs. In the end, however, the March 24 election’s outcome emerged not in Kennedy, but from a cliff-hanging series of recounts across the country and the distribution of voters’ second preferences allowed under Australian electoral law. The winner: Prime Minister Robert (Bob) Hawke’s Labor Party, which, with the final tally still uncertain at week’s end, appeared to have won 77 seats in the 148-seat House of Representatives—a seven-seat majority. And Hawke, a 60-year-old Rhodes Scholar who, as a student at Oxford, won an entry in The Guinness Book of Records for drinking 2% pints of beer in 12 seconds, broke an Australian political record by winning a fourth consecutive term in office.
But the victory was bittersweet. After seven years in power under Hawke, the Labor Party lost its comfortable 18-seat majority. And many analysts attributed the narrow margin of victory to economic factors, including 7.8-percent annual inflation, a $104-billion foreign debt and 17-per-cent interest rates. Although Hawke promised during the campaign to lower interest rates, Australians did not appear confident that he could do so. Nationally, Labor’s share of the popular vote dropped by almost seven per cent from 1987 balloting. But observers said that Hawke was ultimately saved by the unwillingness of voters to throw their support in great numbers to the coalition of conservative opposition parties, headed by the Liberals’ Andrew Peacock. The Liberals’ vote rose by less than one per cent and, combined with their coalition partner, the rural-based National Party, they won as many as 70 seats. Most of the protest vote went to the Australian Democrats, independents or the environmentalist Greens—but only one Independent candidate actually won a seat.
The results were the final blow for Peacock’s troubled 10-month leadership of his party. When it became clear on March 29 that he had no chance of forming a government, the 51-year-old Peacock told his caucus colleagues that he would formally resign this week but would stay on as an MP. In any case, his critics in the party, evidently convinced that his wooden style of leadership and failure to articulate a convincing alternative to Labor had robbed the Liberals of a sure win, had already started backroom manoeuvring to oust him. Said Peacock: “I believe there should be a new leader in the wake of a defeat.”
For the National Party, the results were also disastrous. The Nationals’ popular vote fell by three per cent, and, at week’s end, party leader Charles Blunt was still waiting for mail-in votes from Australians abroad to see if he had even retained his own seat in his hotly contested Richmond riding in New South Wales. The Australian Democrats, a left-of-centre party, made their best showing ever, with about 11 per cent of the vote, but failed to win a seat. They also faced the loss of their leader, Janine Haines, who said that she would leave politics in the wake of her personal defeat.
With victory assured and his opponents in serious disarray, Hawke contacted Gov. Gen. William Hayden five days after the election to say that he would form another government. But he faced the immediate difficulty of making good on his promise of “sustained and substantial” interest-rate relief at a time when rates worldwide are edging upward. Still, some analysts argued that Hawke would have no choice but to cut rates substantially because his policy of reducing demand had thrust the country to the brink of recession. Said Peacock: “I congratulate Mr. Hawke on his success, but I trust for Australia’s sake that Labor will govern well.” After teetering on the edge of electoral defeat, Hawke has survived to enter his eighth year in office—and confront enormous problems ahead.
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