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Australia's Keating Wins Few Points on Style

Like Clinton in the US, the Australian leader's agenda faces an angry, recession-weary electorate and a recalcitrant Senate

PRIME Minister Paul Keating and President Clinton have a lot in common at the moment.

Both leaders face angry, recession-weary electorates wanting more services for fewer taxes. Both are being brought up short for trying to go it alone.

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And in both cases, the young leaders' ambitious agendas are blocked by recalcitrant Senates, says Bruce Wolpe, political analyst for Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm. ``The US Senate derailed Clinton's stimulus package and the Australian Senate will unravel, in part, Treasurer John Dawkins's original proposed budget.''

A chorus of voices is being raised against Mr. Keating and several members of his hand-picked Labor Party Cabinet. Whether the issue is the budget, land-rights legislation, or industrial relations, a multitude of interest groups and Labor legislators are upset.

Even the recent fall of the Australian dollar is being blamed on Keating. His standing in the polls has dropped to 26 percent.

The criticism is increasingly centered around Keating's autocratic, nonconsultative style of leadership.

When Keating won reelection by the slimmest of margins in March, he called it a ``mandate.'' The Labor Party was so grateful for this victory that they allowed him the freedom to forward several items on his agenda: transforming Australia into a republic, increasing the profile of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group, and creating new legislation to clarify the Mabo land-rights ruling by the High Court.

Many questions have been left unresolved since the High Court's Mabo decision in June 1992 gave Aborigines limited standing in court to press land claims. Keating has been sympathetic to Aboriginal interests, and used a meeting with state premiers to press their cause further. But the prime minister has seen a virtual rebellion by conservative premiers who have threatened to create their own legislation that would favor resource industries such as mining.

Keating's long-awaited legislation, unveiled on Sept. 3, would simplify legal processes in the Federal Court, Australia's highest court. It would validate all existing land titles and give Aborigines the right to negotiate over development on their land, but not give them the right of veto. All parties have expressed dissatisfaction with the legislation and complained that they were not sufficiently consulted.

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But the biggest outcry has come over the budget. Aimed at bringing the budget deficit down to 1 percent of gross domestic product by 1996, the original budget increased revenue through indirect taxes and other measures. Unions and minor opposition parties protested the budget, saying it placed a greater tax burden on the working class. `Lack of sensitivity'

``The biggest mistake since Keating's remarkable win has been his budget. It's been a political disaster for him,'' says Richard Herr, professor of political science at the University of Tasmania. ``Clearly there wasn't enough consultation with affected groups and there was an obvious lack of sensitivity to Labor voters' interests.''

Treasurer Dawkins was forced into an unprecedented compromise with the Senate Democrats and Greens to get enough votes to ensure passage of the budget legislation. A new tax on retirees' entitlements was dropped and the price jump for leaded gasoline was modified. ``The Legislature is amending the Executive's budget,'' says Fedor Mediansky, associate professor of political science at the University of New South Wales. ``That's usual in the States, very unusual in Australia.''

And Keating's minister for industrial relations, Laurie Brereton, also came under fire from unions for his proposal to give nonunion workers more flexibility in entering into enterprise bargaining agreements. Union members fear that will result in lower wages for everybody.

Some of them booed Mr. Brereton during his speech at the biannual meeting of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Sept. 2.

The ACTU threatened to break off the Accord agreement with the government (which keeps labor strife down) if Keating did not back down on some aspects of the new budget and the proposed industrial relations changes. In the end, the unions did not strike.

``The basis of support that he's relied on is fragmenting,'' says Mr. Mediansky. ``The grass roots, the true believers to whom he directed his campaign, the trade unions, all can see there have been substantial strains.'' One-term prime minister

While election coverage had Keating pegged to lead into the 21st century, the scuttlebutt these days is that he will serve only one term.

Perhaps the only successful piece of Keating's agenda has been APEC. His getting the Clinton administration to understand the economic potential of the Pacific Rim group resulted in the informal leaders' meeting of APEC that will be held in Seattle in November.

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