Australia faces an almost unprecedented period of political uncertainty, after the tightest election in decades failed to produce a clear winner and left the two main parties courting a handful of independent and Green MPs.
A handful of seats will remain in doubt for several days, but it was clear within hours of the polls closing that neither Julia Gillard's ruling Labor Party nor Tony Abbott's conservative Coalition could secure a majority in the House of Representatives. The two leaders scrambled yesterday to sweet-talk the four independents and one Green MP who could help them form a minority government.
Not since 1940 has Australia had a hung parliament at national level, and political analysts say the limbo could continue for up to a fortnight. During that time, postal and early votes will be counted, and the horse-trading will continue. If no deal is struck, there would have to be fresh elections. That is widely regarded as unlikely, but observers say any minority government will probably be short-lived: it would either become paralysed, or the ruling party would call an election to seek a stronger mandate as soon as its poll ratings lifted. David Burchell, of the University of Western Sydney, described a hung parliament as the "nightmare scenario we all feared", and predicted a minority government would last no longer than 18 months.
"Neither [party] will be able to pass a significant body of legislation other than budget Bills," he said. "They would have to be negotiating with the independents and minorities – or most of them – probably every single time, and Los Angeles-style gridlock is what would result."
The election outcome was a slap in the face for Labor, which dumped its leader, Kevin Rudd, two months ago after a plunge in popularity. Two-thirds of its losses were to the Greens, a reflection of voter anger at Labor for shelving an emissions trading scheme. The Greens won their first seat in the House of Representatives and will also control the balance of power in the Senate, the upper house.
Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott each claimed to have a superior right to lead a minority government. The former noted that Labor had won the popular vote, which she said was "a critical factor to weigh in the coming days".
But Mr Abbott said the "savage swing" against Labor – 5.4 per cent nationally – was evidence that Australians wanted a change of government. "It's certain that any Labor government will be chronically divided and dysfunctional," he said.
Their respective fates are now in the hands of a disparate group of politicians who would normally wield little influence in parliament. And while the Greens' MP, Adam Bandt, has already indicated a preference for Labor, three of the independents (who all represent rural constituencies) come from conservative backgrounds, though analysts say they could jump either way.
Yet to be confirmed, but apparently heading for victory in his Tasmania seat, is a fourth independent, Andrew Wilkie, who resigned as an intelligence analyst before the Iraq war, then publicly accused the government of misrepresenting intelligence relating to weapons of mass destruction in order to justify joining the Coalition of the Willing. He has previously stood twice for the Greens.
With nearly 80 per cent of the vote counted, Labor had 72 seats in the 150-member House, while the Coalition had 70 and was expected to gain two more.
Having scored a historic victory in 2007, when it ended 11 years of conservative rule, Labor's is the first government since 1931 to fail to win a second-term majority.
The biggest swings against it were in New South Wales and Queensland, both of which have unpopular state Labor governments. In the latter, some losses were attributed to sympathy for Mr Rudd, a Queenslander.
The three independents already re-elected held talks yesterday, and indicated that they would throw their combined weight behind one party or the other. "We get on well together, we work closely together, we have similar backgrounds," Bob Katter, a veteran Queensland MP, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But none of them gave a hint as to which party that might be.
Peter Costello, a former senior Coalition politician, warned: "It's quite possible, with an unstable situation like this, that we could be back to the polls within a year." However, others pointed out that Australia's states and territories had considerable experience of stable minority governments.
The outback king-maker
*Among those set to determine who governs Australia is Bob Katter, a maverick Queenslander who ridicules the notion of climate change, has never used a computer and roams his 500,000sq km Outback constituency wearing a large white Stetson.
He shares his rural background with other independents likely to play important roles as king-makers in the coming days. A popular MP in his north Queensland electorate for nearly 20 years, Mr Katter calls himself "a wild boy from wild country". He is an outspoken advocate for rural Australia, which often feels neglected by policy-makers in Canberra. Mr Katter opposes the import of cheap bananas and beef, and would like to see agricultural subsidies and tariffs reinstated. He dislikes supermarkets, asylum-seekers and gay people.
A diehard climate change sceptic, Mr Katter declared last year, somewhat mystifyingly: "I mean, if you could imagine 20 or 30 crocodiles up there on the roof, and if all that roof was illumination, and saying that we wouldn't see anything in this room because of a few croco-roaches up there. Are you telling me seriously that the world is going to warm because there's 400 parts per million of CO2 up there?"
Mr Katter has joked that rodeos were cruel to the riders, not the animals. He also bemoaned the erosion of freedoms, saying: "Can't go fishing, can't go shooting, can't go hunting, can't – I found out the other day – I can't boil the billy [kettle]."
He says he works well with the other independents and indicated they would throw their weight behind one party.