More good news for Kevin Rudd on Saturday, with Australia’s first actual election for the year: a by-election in the Western Australian state seat of Peel to replace disgraced former minister Norm Marlborough.

Peel is in the extensive southern beachside suburbs of Perth, surrounding but not including the regional centre of Rockingham. The southern suburbs are generally solid Labor territory – Peel is in the heart of Kim Beazley’s seat of Brand – and at the 2005 election Marlborough won with 63.5% of the vote. But his enforced resignation, after Corruption and Crime Commission phone taps revealed him taking orders from Brian Burke, was expected to yield a substantial swing to the opposition.

Not so. Labor’s candidate, navy veteran Paul Papalia, was not even taken to preferences. He actually recorded a small swing in Labor’s favour: 1% two-party-preferred. The primary vote was down by 4.5% (since by-elections produce more candidates), but the Liberal primary vote was down 4.8%. (The Poll Bludger has comprehensive coverage.)

It seems to have slipped under the radar for most of the mainstream media, but this is a stunning result. For a government to gain ground in a by-election is unusual; to do so in these circumstances is unprecedented.

It’s a good omen for premier Alan Carpenter and a very bad one for opposition leader Paul Omodei, who has been in the job for less than a year. Calls for his resignation are already being heard.

Federal implications are less clear. State factors were probably uppermost, but it’s always difficult to separate the two. Certainly it casts doubt on the idea that the departure of Kim Beazley would be a big negative for Labor in WA.

Adam Carr, commenting at the Poll Bludger site, put it succinctly:

… just how hopeless and demoralised can the state Liberal branches get before this starts to flow through into their federal campaigning? Can Howard really carry the election all by himself with no help at all from his very badly broken party machine?

And in other good news for Labor yesterday, a slightly dodgy New South Wales poll in the Sun-Herald shows the Iemma government headed for a comfortable victory in the 24 March election.

Antony Green’s ABC website for the NSW election is now up and running, and is indispensable reading for election watchers.