AFTER five weeks of extravagant and expensive promises, half-truths and probably a fair smattering of outright lies, Australians will go to the polls next Saturday knowing that at least one of the major claims of the federal election campaign has been scientifically proven: Australia really is moving closer to Asia. As Prime Minister Paul Keating and Opposition Leader Dr John Hewson proclaim that Australia's future lies to the north and offer inducements to boost trade and exports, scientists have discovered that the continent of Australia is moving nearer Asia - seven centimetres a year nearer, to be precise. After a lacklustre campaign in which both Labor and its Liberal-National opponents have rolled out the pork barrels and devoted much of their time casting doubt on each other's ability to deliver their promises, it's refreshing to know that much, at least, is true. Because with US investment bank Salomon Brothers casting doubt on the Coalition's A$20 billion (HK$110 billion) price tag for privatising the Australian and Overseas Telecommunications Corporation (AOTC) - A$20 billion will fund the abolition of payroll tax and its fight-back job creation and economic stimulation package - and Labor's own Finance Minister, Ralph Willis, casting doubt on its ability to deliver its much-vaunted tax cuts if there's another slump, credibility is a major issue. This election is one of the closest in Australia's history. A swing of just 0.9 per cent is needed to unseat the Keating Government after 10 years of Labor rule. It holds five seats by less than one per cent. Even when the election was called by Mr Keating on February 7 after an expected big swing against Labor in the West Australian state election was held to just two per cent, the polls were divided as to which party had the slight edge. In the course of the campaign the polls showed the Coalition taking a small but decisive lead, with Labor then regaining much of that ground as the Opposition struggled to sell its planned 15 per cent Goods and Services Tax (GST). Yesterday bookies in the Northern Territory, the only state where they are legal, were offering odds of 5/2 on for the Coalition and 7/4 for Labor. Next Saturday, as voters make the choice, Sydney-based Irish comedienne, Geraldine Doyle reckons the noise in local polling booths will be deafening: ''Millions of Australians will be saying 'eeny-meeny-miny-mo'.'' A record 1,208 candidates, ranging from those seeking pensioner power to those wanting an end to immigration, will contest the 147 House of Representative seats and 40 Senate seats. Labor presently controls the lower house 77 seats to 69 (an extra one has been created for this election). The Senate, only part of which is up for election, is controlled by Labor, the Democrats and two independents and the Coalition has virtually no chance of winning control of it. There are important differences between the major parties in a number of key policy areas, particularly health, education, industrial relations and taxation. So, too, are there on issues such as arts and child care funding - issues which for many will bethe deciding factor. Some, for instance, will be swayed by the Coalition's planned A$50 million cut to the budget of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and share the view of expatriate Australian author and broadcaster Clive James. He says Dr Hewson is apparently being advised by a committee including Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and the tourist who attacked the Vatican's Michelangelo sculpture, the Pieta. For others it will be Labor's A$75 million arts package, launched at a star-studded Sydney gala and featuring a speech by actor Bryan Brown, a performance by the dancers from the hit film Strictly Ballroom and Mr Keating, who had no qualms about performing with an Aboriginal dance group. He used the occasion for some of the blunt speaking which characterises his public appearances: the Liberals were ''straighteners and punishers,'' ''narcs and nics'' who wanted to make Australians cower. ''The arts are to the Liberals like a wooden cross to Dracula. You hold it up and they move back,'' he said. It's that kind of plain talk that may attract some voters to Dr Hewson's promise to overhaul the operation of parliament. Not only will there be an impartial speaker and a three-week limit on election campaigns, the theatrics and farce of parliamentary question time will be ended by ensuring at least 20 questions are answered and allowing the speaker to force a minister to stop talking if his answer is irrelevant. That would be a relief to Australians for whom attempting to understand the issues in this election has been muddied by the rhetoric of the two grey men at the helm - Mr Keating, the Italian-suited, 49-year-old, sharp-tongued former clerk and rock band manager who beat Bob Hawke in a leadership challenge in December, 1991, and Dr Hewson, the Ferrari-driving 46-year-old former economics professor who became party leader in April, 1990. Their first televised debate, during which a television audience gave points to Dr Hewson when he said life was harder for our kids and criticised hospital queues, was little more than a dog fight. ''Come on, tell the truth. . . that's dead wrong. . . you've got to be joking. . . don't tell me that rubbish'' typified the he-who-talks-fastest-and-loudest contest. The leaders will apparently stop at nothing to win votes: Mr Keating with slicked back hair and Ray Ban sunglasses on the cover of Rolling Stone: Dr Hewson, feigning sax playing like Unted States President Bill Clinton on a prime time show; Annita Keating, the Dutch former air hostess wife of a PM in a glamorous Vogue fashion spread; Mr Keating's children on stage at the Labor launch in colour-co-ordinated clothes; Dr Hewson's children from his first marriage posing with him and his merchant banker secondwife, the wife whom he left after she raised those children while he made his first million not in view. Labor has promised to spend A$627 million on child care, plus a A$30 a week wage for stay-at-home mums - a promise delivered by a leader who once said of a leading feminist, ''she wouldn't get a root on a troop ship coming home''. The Coalition's A$452 for child care was announced by a leader who used to compare women to cars - sleek, trim and shapely was the ideal. Mr Keating's former press secretary, Barrie Cassidy, wrote recently, ''the tactic is simple to identify and difficult to implement: stay focused on the issue and win the six o'clock news''. In fact so carefully is this election being stage-managed that the Coalition is actively discouraging journalists from going on the campaign trail with its front benchers, although little is known about their policies. The advertising, although hard hitting, has not been particularly memorable, with the exception of the Coalition's ''you could be next'' unemployment ad, in which the viewer saw a crowd through the roving sights of a gun. It was a message that prompted the Coalition For Gun Control to say, ''for someone with a sniper fantasy, this ad could be an incitement to act it out''. Ironically, though, it is that advertisement and its subject matter that lies at the heart of this election. Education and the Coalition's plan to allow tertiary institutions to charge local students fees and to fund education through a voucher system is a key issue; so is its planned industrial relations system, based on workplace agreements and direct bargaining outside the traditional awards and arbitration system, rather than Labor's system of accords with the union movement. Mr Keating has based his courting of business on a cut in company tax from 36 per cent to 33 per cent, compared with the Coalition's 42 per cent, though the Government has conceded big Australian exporters would benefit from the Coalition's abolition of payroll tax. He has also risked Asian anger by planning to restrict tariff preferences for developing countries in industries such as clothing, textiles, footwear, chemicals, sugar and canned food. Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Thailand and the Philippines will be affected. But a Coalition win would be bad news for Hongkong people wanting to migrate to Australia; it would further cut Australia's immigration intake. Although it has not spelled out the size of that cut, it could be as low as 50,000 a year compared to the current financial year's 78,000. That in itself was down from 111,000 the previous year, but a Labor Government would be expected to maintain the present level or cut it only slightly. However, race and immigration have not been issues in this election campaign, with former Coalition leader John Howard refraining from statements such as his past calls for a slowdown in Asian immigration in the interests of social cohesion. If the Coalition wins, it will set up a national council to advise it on citizenship - in particular to define what it means to be an Australian. That's a move seen as having the potential to reopen the controversial multi-culturalism debate and divide both the Coalition and Australian society. Labor has also taken a risk by announcing it would set up a committee to examine the possibility of Australia becoming a republic - a mildly worded pledge, but one that's a red rag to the bullish anti-republicans on the conservative side of Australian politics. But for all the myriad issues which this election campaign is about or could be about or which the politicians would like to make it about, for most Australians it boils down to just one: is a record unemployment total of more than one million sufficientreason to vote for a new 15 per cent tax on almost everything? More than two million Australians don't have a job and want one, a new survey shows. Yet government statistics show unemployed people only have a 15 per cent chance of finding work each month. The Coalition and many voters blame Labor and, in particular, Paul Keating. It has pledged to create 202,000 new manufacturing jobs by the end of the decade and says the answer lies with the restructuring planned through its A$3 billion Rebuild AustraliaFund. Both parties concede employment won't come down immediately after the election - whoever wins. But Labor says punishing it for unemployment by voting for an extra tax isn't the answer. Australians are hurting and both Mr Keating and Dr Hewson know it. But the clear impression many voters have is that rather than presenting rational packages for recovery based on clear economic guidelines, each has launched into a vote-buying spree so massive there are major question marks over the ability of either to implement their promises.