Australian government looks set to hold key seat

SYDNEY, Australia, AP

With almost half the votes counted in a critical federal by-election Saturday, Prime Minister John Howard’s embattled government looked like narrowly holding on to the seat despite a swing to the opposition Labor Party.

The poll in Aston, an electorate in the southern city of Melbourne, is seen as a key indicator of the relative strengths of Howard’s Liberal Party and the opposition Labor Party. National elections are expected in November or December.

Analysts say a win for either side will give it renewed momentum in the countdown to the federal election, when Howard’s conservative coalition will seek a third term.

Liberal lawmaker Peter Nugent won Aston at the 1998 federal election. He died of a heart attack in April.

With just under half the votes counted, Labor had recorded a swing of 3.8 percent, slightly less than the 4.2 percent swing it needed to win the seat.

The Liberal candidate, Chris Pearce had 16,698 votes, or 39.73 percent of the total votes counted, while Labor’s Kieran Boland had 15,310 votes, or 36.43 percent.

The electorate has about 89,000 voters, with some 10,000 registered as postal voters.

Australian Electoral Commission spokesman Steve Kennedy said the postal votes would not be counted until Monday.

“It could be the end of the week before we have an outcome, or the week after,” he said.

Campaigning for the seat has foreshadowed likely tactics at the federal poll later this year with Howard hinting strongly his government will cut income tax if re-elected and Labor leader Kim Beazley pledging to remove goods and services tax from many items.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in the world that we are a tax cutter rather than a spending increaser as a party,” Howard said Friday.

At a by-election earlier this year, Labor won a seat the Liberals had held for more than 50 years with a swing of 10 percent.

Howard’s government also has suffered two humiliating defeats in state legislature elections this year, being kicked out of office by Labor in both Queensland and Western Australia states.

The right wing One Nation Party, which polled strongly in both the state elections, fielded a candidate among the 15 names on Saturday’s ballot, but the party was not expected to win many votes.

One Nation’s support is strongest in poor, rural areas. Aston is a middle class neighborhood in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city.