In addition to Bastille Day, there was another significant anniversary on Saturday — six years since the Aston by-election, caused by the death of local member Peter Nugent. The Howard government narrowly retained the seat despite a 3.6% swing.

Aston showed that the 2001 Howard comeback, which commenced with the Ryan by-election four months earlier, was continuing, and that that year’s federal election would at least be competitive. It was also the first sign of the electorate’s dissatisfaction with then Labor leader Kim Beazley, whose gaffe over tax increases was one of the issues of the campaign.

This year looks very different. As this morning’s Nielsen poll confirms, the much-awaited government recovery hasn’t happened, and voters’ love affair with Kevin Rudd continues unabated. It’s hard to fault John Stirton’s comment that “The numbers look to be rock solid and going nowhere.”

The one bright spot for John Howard is that he is sitting on a much more comfortable margin than in 2001. Even after Aston, he was still looking at a likely loss: it was the Tampa wot won it.

This year, however, a 3.6% swing would at best deliver Rudd a wafer-thin majority. But with the polls consistently showing more than twice that, it’s small consolation for the government. Certainly none of the panelists on Insiders yesterday could find any upside for it when Barrie Cassidy tossed the Aston result at them.

And whatever happened to Aston? Helped by boundary shifts and demographic change, it has become the safest Liberal seat in metropolitan Melbourne. Chris Pearce, chosen in 2001 as a good marginal seat candidate, now sits on a margin of 13.2%.

Whatever fate may befall the Howard government, it will still be able to count on Aston.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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