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Aussie Voters, Wary Of Rapid Change, Put Heat on Leaders

ON the surface, it is a revolt of historic proportions. But at its core, analysts, politicians, and even voters aren't quite sure what force is turning once-predictable Australian politics into guesswork.

In an election last Saturday that is still too close to call, voters in the state of Queensland followed an emerging national trend and ousted or politically wounded the state's ruling Labor Party. Analysts say an unprecedented upsurge in anti-incumbent and protest voting across Australia reflects sea changes in the electorate or may just be coincidence.

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In a stunning upset, Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating's Labor Party will either hold onto power in Queensland by one or two seats or lose power completely when a final count is completed this weekend. The loss or near loss by Labor is a grim warning for Mr. Keating, who must call national elections before next May and whose party now controls only two of Australia's seven state and governments.

''If [the incumbent party] in Queensland loses, only three governments have been returned to office in nine elections since 1991,'' says Murray Goot, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. ''You'd have to go all the way back to the Great Depression to find the last time so many [ruling] governments lost.''

Some analysts say the unexpected results in Queensland show that voter blocs, largely frozen since World War I, are finally shifting. ''The patterns of party identification ... are just beginning to unravel,'' says Ian Ward at the University of Queensland.

Mr. Ward says Keating's attempt to transform Australia from a protected, agriculture- and mining-based economy to a lean, high-tech export economy is eliminating the traditional divisions that allied workers with Keating's Labor, while the wealthy and farmers with Australia's more conservative Liberal Party.

The message that voters may be sending is that the country is changing too fast or heading in the wrong direction. Unlike their US counterparts, voters in Australia expect government to take a leading role in society. Historically, the government has had to help create industries due to a lack of private capital in the country of only 17 million.

Keating has moved aggressively since gaining power from fellow Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1992. A quasi-judicial arbitration system that set minimum-wage levels for various industrial workers since the early 1900s has gradually been eliminated and many state-run companies have been privatized.

''For many people, the changes ... have been quite rapid,'' says Ward. ''This is why you may have voters saying: 'That's enough, slow things down. This is too much change.' ''

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But Clive Bean, a sociologist at the Australian National University, argues that too much significance is being placed on a series of elections with vastly different local factors. Saying a pattern exists that reflects underlying social change in Australia is going too far, he says, because the shift away from raw materials-based industry began decades ago and incumbents have actually fared well in recent federal elections.

In random interviews, Queensland voters expressed a sense that the local and national Labor Party had grown arrogant - a major affront in Australia - and out of touch with the public. Farmers and factory workers were being forced to tighten their belts and compete in fierce world markets by the Labor government, they say, while the welfare system remains generous.

''The Labor Party used to be workers, but now they're all university people,'' says Owen Johnston, a self-described supporter of Keating. ''I think they've lost touch with the average people.''

Peter Coaldrake, a senior member of the ruling state government in Queensland from 1990 to 1994 and now deputy vice chancellor at Queensland University of Technology, says voters are responding to inept politicians.

''Putting aside local issues, I think being an incumbent has become a real occupational hazard,'' Mr. Coaldrake says. ''There's a malaise in the electorate about the performance of the government. Why politicians promise anything is beyond me. They make promises in a too-carefree manner.''

Sydney political scientist Goot says what is causing the volatility is unclear, but it is unprecedented for post-World-War-II Australia. ''You wouldn't be talking about a single cause,'' says Goot. ''This is extraordinary instability.''

Voter Johnston predicts the next victim may be Keating, but the outspoken Australian prime minister was also counted out in a 1993 election but salvaged a narrow victory.

''I don't think Keating will survive another election,'' says former Keating supporter Johnston. ''Do you stick with the devil or do you try a new devil? At least with one you know what he's going to do. It makes voting for him a little easier.''

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