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The Sydney Morning Herald


Date: 06/02/1992
Words: 994
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Page: 6
MELBOURNE: In the heart of the Wills electorate of the former Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, stands the Coburg RSL Club, where the regulars say local Liberal supporters can be counted on one finger.

A table-load of six staunch Labor men admitted there was one Liberal backer, but he was a Kiwi and they figured he might be trying to wind them up

"I happen to know Bob Hawke," said one of the six who identified himself as Mr Claude Curtin, a nephew of the World War II Labor Prime Minister. "Bob's a good bloke," he said, adding: "I'm Labor through and through. Surprising, isn't it?"

Another, Mr Les Mann, reckoned "Labor should win as long as they get a good local candidate". Mr Barney Woolf agreed. "Ninety-eight per cent (of the locals) would vote Labor."

But the news from Wills is worse for Labor than these stalwarts would believe. The lack of jobs means Labor could easily lose a by-election if Mr Hawke quits Federal politics.

There were warning signs at the last Federal election when Mr Hawke became the first ALP member since 1955 forced to count preferences to hold the seat after his primary vote dropped from 61.8 to 48.68 per cent.

Labor has an 8 per cent margin in Wills, where the population is about 55 per cent foreign-born, overwhelmingly blue-collar, with a high proportion of the elderly.

Migrants have probably suffered most from job cuts at the nearby Ford car plant and in the many local clothing and footwear factories. The jobless rate was 15.3 per cent in November, compared with the Victorian average of 10.2 per cent.

The biggest sign that the Liberals may stand a chance in Wills is that there were only two candidates for pre-selection at the last election, compared with up to 12 who are set to throw their hat in the ring this time.

The Liberal candidate who opposed Mr Hawke in 1990, Mr John Delcretaz , is a Swiss-born businessman who produces and exports fluffy wool dusters.

Mr Delcretaz, 65, who emigrated to Australia with this wife in 1951 and was naturalised in 1960, reckons the locals will "have the intelligence to throw out Labor". He said: "Things are very grim here. I have never seen Australia so bad."

A recent poll in the Coburg Courier newspaper found that 62 per cent of those surveyed wanted Mr Hawke to stay, in spite of his decision to buy a house in Sydney to be near his family. The same feeling runs through the local party branch, which is narrowly controlled by the right-wing Labor Unity faction.

Mr Hawke's stocks remain high because of his well-regarded electorate staff, the odd community project - such as the Bob Hawke community centre -and that old knock-em-dead-in-the-shopping-mall charisma on his periodic sweeps through the region.

Mr Hawke told the Coburg Courier on January 21 that he would be "quite straightforward" with the electorate if he decided to resign before the next Federal election. He said that he would "have to consider the position in terms of my own interests and the interests of the party".

Mr Hawke was confident - even before he signed with the International Management Group this week - that his proposed series of television interviews with the famous would proceed.

"I've been in public life for 33 years and I've not made a quid in that time," Mr Hawke said. "I'm not poor but I received for being Prime Minister of this country the princely sum of $150,000 and there were lots of demands upon that."

Mr Hawke's senior electorate officer, Ms Mimi Tamborino, said yesterday the office telephones had not stopped ringing since he was deposed as Prime Minister.

She said most callers wanted Mr Hawke to remain the MP for Wills since they no longer had to "share him with the rest of the nation". But they had also said they would understand if he decided to leave Parliament. "Whatever he decides, they want what is best for him. They were proud that their Member was the Prime Minister of their country."

Ms Tamborino said Mr Hawke had been in the electorate about two weeks ago and was due back next week. "We must understand that he's a busy man with lots of demands and lots of things he must do ... I think constituents will get a good run and see a lot of him."

The State secretary of the Victorian ALP, Ms Jenny Beacham, said the party had yet to discuss Wills in any detail, but it was on their minds. "I think everyone is informally expecting Hawke to go fairly soon," she said. "All the signals are that he will go before Parliament resumes so obviously we are thinking about it.

"There's no great panic or crisis about it. Governments never look forward to by-elections, but I'm quite confident that if we field a strong local candidate we can give it a good shot. That's what we will be working towards.

Interest in being the ALP candidate for Wills appears to have waned among the early favourites - the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Evans, the union leader Mr John Halfpenny, the local State member, Mr Kelvin Thomson, and Mr Geoff Fary, an influential offsider to the Minister for Defence and right-wing numbers cruncher, Senator Ray.

Whoever gets the nod will have to do a lot of fast talking, mostly about unemployment.

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