Shoot-out in the West for Keating's gang

AUSTRALIA is on a war footing: with the announcement that Western Australia will go to the polls on February 6, the battle for the hearts and minds of the nation's voters has begun in earnest.

In a desperately close election widely seen as a test of the Federal Labor Government's chances of survival, Western Australian Labor Premier Dr Carmen Lawrence, whose government could be thrown out of office by a swing of just one per cent, is fighting not only for her own political life, but for that of the Prime Minister, Paul Keating.

Her government holds just 28 of the 57 seats in the State Parliament's lower house and depends on the support of four independents to govern.

If Labor is trounced in the state - and a swing of just three per cent would see it lose 10 of those 28 seats - four of federal Labor's eight Western Australian seats will be in grave doubt. Given that the Federal Government needs to lose just five seats to fall from power, it's do-or-die in the West.

What's more, among those hanging on to their federal seats there by a slim thread is party heavyweight Kim Beazley, Federal Minister for Education and Employment and the man most often tipped as Paul Keating's heir apparent.

The timing of the Western Australian election has opened up an enormous guessing game about when the federal poll, which must take place by May, will be held. No one knows yet, including, it seems, Mr Keating, who faces some important constraints and obstacles in choosing the date. He must give 33 days notice.

To call an election on March 13 would mean doing so while the Western Australian campaign was still underway and the result unknown. If it hasn't been called by February 23, Parliament will resume.

April is strewn with public holiday weekends that preclude an election and there's also the chance that if Mr Keating waits until May the languishing economy may have improved.

Most commentators are now agreed that the federal election is unlikely before early April.

Of course that hasn't stopped the politicians around the country moving into election mode. Mr Keating, however, has refused to speak to the overseas press since August and will not do so until after the election. The National Party has already launched its campaign with the slogan ''Care For Your Country - Vote Nationals''. And its leader, Tim Fischer, has conceded that if the party (in Opposition in coalition with the Liberal Party) fails in its goal of winning an extra six federal seats, its future is doubtful.

SO the Nationals, who have traditionally represented Australia's rural heartland, are also fighting for their political survival.

In Western Australia, Dr Lawrence has many obstacles between her and victory. Her own popularity isn't one of them.

While the latest Morgan Gallup poll shows her party, at 39 per cent, is seven points behind the state's Liberal-National Opposition, Dr Lawrence's approval rating was 61 per cent, compared with just 29 per cent for the Opposite leader, Richard Court.

Mr Court, the fourth son of the state's long-time Liberal Premier, Sir Charles Court, has been labelled a wimp. He is seen as being as pedestrian as his rapidly-announced campaign slogan: ''More Jobs. Better Management''.

In theory, the Opposition has everything going for it in Western Australia. The state has been wracked by financial scandals known as WA Inc. That was the tag given to a series of disastrous deals between the government and big business in the 80s, involved Dr Lawrence's predecessors as premiers during Labor's 10 years in office there.

In this litmus test of the Keating government, the parties are going head-to-head on many of the same issues: economic growth, education, law and order, health. Whether Mr Court can carry his party's policies on those key issues against the charisma ofthe cool and business-like Dr Lawrence is the great unknown.