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Monday, 19 March, 2001, 08:11 GMT
Poll setback for Australia PM
Labor's Leonie Short (centre, red dress) and supporters
Labor's Leonie Short (centre, red dress) celebrates
Australia's ruling Liberal/National coalition is looking increasingly battered after a by-election in the Brisbane suburb of Ryan, once considered its safest seat, was too close to call.

With some 3,600 postal votes still to be counted, Liberal candidate Bob Tucker was slightly trailing Labor's Leonie Short, after a 10% swing to the opposition.


I reject completely any suggestion that it spells inevitable defeat for the government at the general election

Prime Minister John Howard
Whoever wins, analysts say this election has wider implications - a similar anti-government swing in the federal election, due by the end of the year, would mean a landslide victory for Labor.

In the face of growing voter fury over economic reforms, Prime Minister John Howard admitted it was a bad result.

"I'm not trying to pretend that it is not. But I reject completely any suggestion that it spells inevitable defeat for the government at the general election."

Backlash

The seat of Ryan was originally considered so safe that Labor was initially not going to field a candidate when it became vacant following the retirement in December of former Defence Minister John Moore.

Liberal candidate Bob Tucker is kissed by his mother and wife
Tucker: Could be the first Liberal to lose Ryan in 52 years
But Saturday's swing follows last month's stinging defeats in two state elections, in which One Nation - the far-right party led by Pauline Hanson - made a comeback, stealing protest ballots from disgruntled voters who traditionally support the ruling coalition.

Mr Howard said he had "taken very careful note" of the message contained in the swing, and promised more vulnerable sections of the community he would protect them from the pain of change.

The anti-government vote has been interpreted as a backlash against soaring fuel prices, market reforms and the introduction of a goods and services tax (GST), which have been blamed for the recent economic turndown.

Recession fears

Last week, the Australian dollar hit new lows as the local stock market suffered from new statistics showing rising unemployment.

Prime Minister John Howard
Howard has admitted the result is bad
With the US currency robust across the board, the Australian unit looked set for further losses, analysts said.

Labor leader Kim Beazley has said he fears the economy could topple into full-blown recession.

Recent opinion polls have tipped Mr Beazley as the man most likely to become the next prime minister in the federal election, expected in November.

Labor needs a national swing of less than 1% to seize federal power.

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See also:

17 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Strong turnout is bad news for PM
22 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Asian-Australians fear far-right return
01 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia celebrates 100 years
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27 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Shadow over Australian party
04 Oct 98 | Australian elections
Pauline Hanson: Voice of nationalism
13 Jun 98 | Asia-Pacific
Race dominates Australian elections
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