Through an editing error an article Sunday incorrectly stated that Bob Hawke has become the first Australian prime minister to win three consecutive elections. He is the first Labor Party prime minister to do so. (Published 7/15/87)

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA, JULY 12 (SUNDAY) -- Prime Minister Bob Hawke won a historic third successive term yesterday as his Labor Party appeared to retain or increase its majority in Parliament over the deeply divided conservative opposition.

He became the first prime minister to win three elections in a row and confirmed his status, along with the late Sir Robert Menzies, as one of the two most successful Australian politicians since World War II.

Hawke's impressive win appeared to justify his gamble to take his Labor government to the polls six months earlier than scheduled in the first midwinter general election in Australia's history. Voting in Australia is compulsory.

While campaigning focused almost entirely on the nation's beleaguered economy to the exclusion of foreign policy, the results signaled continued support by the Hawke government for U.S. policy in the South Pacific, which is considered important to the United States at a time of increased Soviet involvement in the region.

There was a slight swing of about 1 percent nationally against the Labor government. But because of regional variations -- the traditionally conservative state of Queensland recorded a 2 percent swing favoring the government -- Hawke increased his majority margin from 16 to at least 20 seats in the 148-member House of Representatives.

Final results will not be known before Monday at the earliest. Counting ended last night with more than 63 percent of the votes tallied, and no votes were counted today. Results of the Senate race may not be known for several days.

Defeated and his political career in tatters, Liberal Party leader John Howard conceded defeat less than four hours after the polls closed. His supporters were quick to argue, and Labor acknowledged, that Howard's chances of victory had been seriously hurt by deep divisions in the conservative opposition.

Traditionally, the Liberal Party, representing conservative and middle-of-the road forces in urban Australia, has fought campaigns and governed when successful in coalition with the National Party, which has represented rural conservatives for more than 60 years.

Before Hawke called the election in May, the Nationals had split with the Liberals, and they campaigned as separate parties.

Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a key figure in the National Party, engineered the split. He had reasoned that Australian voters would swing behind the Nationals amid rising concern over the nation's declining standard of living and mounting foreign debt -- at U.S. $71.4 billion, the fourth largest per capita debt in the world.

A legendary populist figure in the steamy northern regions of the country, much like George Wallace was in the American South in the 1960s and early '70s, Bjelke-Petersen advocated a flat income tax of 25 percent. The current five-level taxation system imposes taxes of up to 49 percent for incomes over $25,000 a year.

Queensland registered a swing of more than 2 percent in favor of the Hawke government.

Elsewhere, Liberal leader Howard did better. But Australians seemed suspicious that he could fulfill his campaign promise of income tax cuts that would bring the maximum tax rate down to 38 percent. He proposed to finance the tax cut with a $5.7 billion cut in government expenditures.

Howard maintained in his campaign that cutting the size of government and the services provided by it would put more money in workers' pockets and trigger an economic revival by inspiring Australians to work harder.

Hawke campaigned on his record and made few promises. He argued that the Howard plan would force cuts in government welfare services, increase the budget deficit -- currently $2.14 billion -- and cause a drop in the exchange rate for the Australian dollar.

Since he defeated conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser in March 1983, Hawke has moved his once left-wing party to the political center and governed by what he calls consensus.

In heavily unionized Australia, Hawke held the influential post of president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions throughout the 1970s. He won labor support by helping negotiate an accord between trade unions and the government under which the unions were permitted a voice in major government decisions in return for peace on the labor front.

Union disputes have dropped markedly under Hawke, although a contributing cause has been a decline in unemployment to 8 percent, the lowest rate in 12 months.

Australia's foreign policy is expected to remain steady and firmly based on the country's 45-year-old alliance with the United States.

Hawke has successfully resisted pressure from left-wing factions of the Labor Party to follow New Zealand's lead and ban American nuclear-armed or -powered warships from the nation's ports.