SYDNEY, Australia — Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, a 76-year-old peanut farmer and lay preacher from Queensland, says nothing can stop his conservative crusade from making him the next prime minister of Australia.
"I am on the crest of a wave. I'm not going to slide off and wait for another one," he said on a recent barnstorming tour of Australia.
Bjelke-Petersen, a member of the Queensland Parliament for 40 years and premier of the sprawling state for the last 19 years, has declared that he will seek a seat in the federal Parliament in a special election, then make a run for the leadership of the National Party and lead conservative forces to victory in elections expected to be held in December.
He is trying now to persuade a Parliament member to resign so he can run in the special election that would be called.
He is supported by a loose coalition of right-wing groups ranging from farmers to real-estate developers who like his anti-socialist, small-government brand of politics, and his promise to slash taxes.
His supporters say he has $25 million in campaign funds.
At a series of meetings around Australia organized by a group called Grassroots 2000, Bjelke-Petersen is loudly cheered when he pledges to introduce a single 25% tax rate to replace a four-tier system that goes up to 60%.
Bjelke-Petersen's crusade has split the conservative parties, which have been out of power in federal politics since Prime Minister Bob Hawke's Labor Party won office in 1983.
Bjelke-Petersen's challenge has been bitterly assailed by John Howard, leader of the Liberal Party, and Ian Sinclair, leader of the National Party. The two conservative parties form an opposition coalition in the federal Parliament, where the Liberals have 44 seats, the National Party 21 and the Labor Party 74.
"If he wants to see the end of the Hawke government he should put all his weight behind the National and Liberal parties," said Sinclair.
Bjelke-Petersen has accused Howard and Sinclair of being ineffective and maintains that they lack election-winning policies.
"I'd rather push a 44-gallon drum of molasses up a hill than try and get them elected," he was quoted as saying in an interview. "They are losers."
Bjelke-Petersen, born in New Zealand of Danish parents, has not elaborated on his plans or his policies.
Would End Alliance
If his strategy to dump Sinclair is successful, he is expected to take the National Party out of the coalition with the Liberals and contest every seat in the national elections in the hope that Australians, feeling the squeeze of high taxes, 9.8% inflation and 8.2% unemployment, will give him a majority.
To win a majority, he would have to increase the National Party vote by 400%, a task most political observers consider well out of reach.
Nevertheless, Bjelke-Petersen's support for law and order, opposition to aboriginal land rights claims, and anti-conservation policies win him cheers on the hustings.
He tours with his wife, Flo, a National Party senator who presents a folksy image and shares her recipe for pumpkin scones with housewives.
Their son John has also announced plans to run for Parliament.
'Empire of Greed'
Hawke has remained unruffled by the prospect of a Bjelke-Petersen challenge, saying Bjelke-Petersen is being financed by millionaire cronies who want to extend "their empire of greed."
Hawke's personal popularity remains steady at 51% compared to opposition leader Howard's 31%. In a poll published Feb. 11, the Labor Party had overcome a three-point gap to remain even with the Liberal-National coalition at 46%.