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Fraser wins -- but barely -- in Australian election

"Life wasn't meant to be easy" has become a favored Australian expression in the past few years, appearing on walls and t-shirts and almost always credited to a man who once used it to explain his philosophies.

Late Saturday night than man, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who is usually somber, eased his tall, navy-blue-suited frame into a chair at Melbourne's Southern Cross Hotel and smiled broadly.

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The Prime Minister claimed victory for his government in the country's federal election. Pollsters and commentators alike had been confident that the opposition Labor Party would win. For weeks they had kept track of a public swing toward Labor.

Mr. Fraser, the Liberals, and the Liberals' coalition partner, the National Country Party, were prepared for defeat as Labor raced ahead in opinion polls and as early voting returns indicated Labor's optimism was justified.

But, as the evening wore on and Prime Minister Fraser dined quietly with his wife and mother, the situation changed. The swing to Labor, while very real at 6 percent, was not distributed in a way that would give Labor enough seats to take over the government. The Liberals would remain in office. Their majority in the 125-member House of Representatives seems likely to drop from 19 to 15, and they appear to have almost lost control over the Senate, but the Liberals will stay in power.

The election results mean there will be no major policy changes in Australia in the next three years, the length of a term of Parliament.

Mr. Fraser will not have any campaign promises to keep because he made none. But it is likely that the narrow win will precipitate a substantial rearrangement in the Fraser Cabinet. Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock seems certain to be given a major domestic economic portfolio as one part of an attempt to improve the government's image.

The Liberal legislative program is likely to be cut back to a minor extent because of lack of control of the Senate. The balance of power, in that chamber will probably be held by an independent and a group called the Australian Democrats led by former Liberal minister Donald Chipp, who broke with the Liberals over differences with the prime minister.

These factors may also increase the number of dissident Liberals in the Senate, who are far less conservative than Mr. Fraser in their approach to legislation and policy. Dissidents have been pressing Mr. Fraser to allow them to elect their own Senate leader.

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The Labor Party's good showing will consolidate Bill Hayden's hold on the party leadership. Labor's hopes are high at this point because the party appeared to gain a high proportion of voters in the 18-to-25 age group.

Clearly Mr. Fraser's victory was not effortless. He gives the impression that he would have felt cheated by an easy win, although he would have liked to have the numbers. The Prime Minister's approach to life and problems is a serious one; he often seems too preoccupied to bother with humor or small talk.

One disconcerting aspect of the elections for Mr. Fraser was the widespread acknowledgment of his lack of personal popularity. The Liberal campaign began with the slogan "Lead on, Liberal" and featured huge photographs of Mr. Fraser. These had disappeared by the end of the campaign.The Liberals concentrate instead on saying Labor would increase inflation to 20 percent.

Inflatin, Mr. Fraser noted, had been held at 10 percent in his administration. He also noted that foreign investors were beating down the doors to invest in the Australian mineral resources development boom. Overall, he stressed in his campaign, Australians had escaped the economic misfortunes of other nations and had remained prosperous.

Labor campaigned on themes of tax reduction, more welfare for the needy, grants to help people buy their own homes, and medical care funded by the government for mothers-to-be and children.

In the next three years, the governing coalition plans to woo foreign investment aggressively, as it has done in the past. Labor will keep watch on the big multinationals' activities. Labor pledged that, if elected, it would insist that Australian companies would have a majority share in mining developments.

The government's win was particularly reassuring to the country's uranium-mining industry. The anti-nuclear Labor Party had threatened to shut it down.

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