Australian voters go to the polls Saturday with the latest public opinion surveys showing that the conservative coalition of Prime Minister Macolm Fraser has edged back into a narrow lead.
When Fraser first called for the election, his Liberal-Country Party coalition was far ahead and was given a strong chance of repeating the 55 seat majority they ran up in 1974.
As the campaign unfolded, however, their fortunes suffered a sharp reversal. The chief causes were the dramatic resignation of Treasurer Phillip Lynch, the continuing stagnation of the economy and popular resentment against having to vote again so soon. The election was called nearly 15 months before Fraser was required to go to the electerate.
After Lynch left office following revelations that he and his family engaged in legal but politically indicrete property speculation, the leader of the Labor Party, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam surged ahead in all major opinion polls.
The latest surveys however show Fraser slightly received an added [WORD ILLEGIBLE] today with an announcement that the unemployment rate had dropped slightly, from 6 per cent in September to 55.8 in October.
Yet, observers are still hesitating to call the winner on the eve of the election. A factor that has made predictions more difficult has been the surprisingly strong showing of a new party, the Australian Democrats, led by former Liberal Minister Don Chipp. The Democrats have staked conservatism of the Liberals and the socialist [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of the Labor Party Polls show them collecting 9 to 12 per cent of the vote, with the likelihood they may end up with the balance of power in the new parliament.
With the election so close, considerable attention is being given to the personalities of the leaders of the two main parties.
Whitlam variously describes himself as a Socialist or a Social Democrat in the mold of such European figures as Sweden's Olaf Palme and West Germany's Willy Brandt.
His Labor Party has declared its intention of nationalizing all of Australia's means of production, distribution and exchange. In view of the generally conservation nature of the Australian electorate, however, the Laborites have been playing down the more theoretical espects of their socialism.
Whitlam is campaigning on a promise of more government control over the economy and arguing that direct government expenditure is needed to solve the problems of unemployment and inflation. His most controversial pledge has been a promise to cancel an across-the-board income tax cut scheduled for Feb. 1.
Introduced by Fraser in his August budget, the cuts will apply chiefly to middle-income earners of $15,000 a year and more.
Whitlam attacked what he claimed was a bias in favor of middle-and-high-wage earners.
Whitlam plans to reintroduce many of the programs he initiated while he was prime minister from 1971 to 1975 - programs Fraser later cancelled. They include a federally financed plan to connect every home in the country to a sewer and a national insurance plan.
Fraser, the staunchly conservative millionaire farmer, has promised little except a continuation of his policy of returning more control over income to individuals and reducing the role of the federal government in social and economic matters. His strategy for combating unemployment is to cut inflation, encourage private investment and spur economic growth.
His determination to cut income taxes has appealed to the middle-income voters who are traditional swinging voters in Australia.