Australia wakes this morning to its biggest political hangover since the dismissal of Gough Whitlam's Labor administration in 1975, left without a Government and knowing that its next Prime Minister will in effect be decided by three or four MPs from the backblocks.

Nothing like this has been seen since two independents nudged the forerunner of the present Coalition into power in 1940, then threw it to the wolves and Labor's John Curtin within months.

Unless she can convince a group of independent MPs otherwise, Julia Gillard, the nation's first female Prime Minister, will also become one of its briefest, her term lasting longer only than three earlier caretaker leaders and conservative Arthur Fadden, who quit in 1941 after less than two months when his budget was blocked.

As it stands, the final result is not expected to be known for days as officials count absentee, postal, provisional and pre-poll votes cast outside the voters' home electorate - many of which could be crucial for seats remaining on a razor's edge.

Late yesterday official results gave the Coalition 72 seats, Labor 70, the Greens one and the independents two, with five seats in doubt. But the ABC projected 72 for Labor and 70 for the Coalition, and AAP 73-75 for Labor and 72-74 for the Coalition.

In the House of Representatives, the balance of power appears certain to be held by three conservative independents representing rural electorates in far north Queensland and New South Wales, and another, a former Greens Senate candidate, in Tasmania.

A fifth, Adam Bandt, won retiring Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner's Melbourne seat from Labor to become the Greens' first federal MP. He has said he will support Labor.

There were other firsts: Ken Wyatt, a West Australian public servant, looks set to win the Perth seat of Hasluck for the Liberals to become Australia's first indigenous MP; and Wyatt Roy, 20, a baby-faced university student, is likely to become Australia's youngest federal MP by winning the Brisbane seat of Longman, also for the Liberals.

But even as negotiations begin with the independents, cleavers are being sharpened within Labor: if Opposition Leader Tony Abbott replaces Gillard, blood will flow like a river as the party turns on itself.

For Abbott, the result will be win-win either way.

Belittled and dismissed by Labor as a no-chance, hammered by polls since he knifed predecessor Malcolm Turnbull last December, and given the proverbial snowflake's chance of winning the election, he led an astonishing campaign. He took a party from chaos to one of the great reversals of fortune in Australia's political history and in so doing cemented his authority within it.

Mentor and former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, the nation's second longest-serving prime minister and a man whose own refusal to accept defeat earned him the sobriquet "Lazarus with the triple bypass", summed it up: "Tony Abbott brought this party back from the dead."

Even Gillard acknowledged Abbott as a "formidable opponent ... made of stern stuff". Gillard's future is far less certain.

If Labor loses office, she would fall directly into the arc of the party's swinging cleavers.

However far predecessor Kevin Rudd had plunged in the polls and how badly Labor was faring, Gillard's decision to challenge and replace him was a huge - though far from sole - factor in the voters' revolt against Labor.

Already, Maxine McKew, previously lionised for throwing Howard from his Sydney seat but now dumped herself, has publicly blamed the coup for Labor's thrashing.

Factional leaders are similarly in the firing line.

Rudd survived the election, but faces his own hit squad. Many still suspect him of the leaks that drowned Labor's message for the first weeks of the campaign.

And State Labor governments will also feel the heat of the fallout.

The biggest hits the Government took were in Queensland and New South Wales, where hugely unpopular, long-serving Labor admin-istrations have been blamed for destroying the party brand.

Parliamentary secretary and rising Labor star Bill Shorten attacked the states, including Queensland, where Premier Anna Bligh is also Labor's national president.

The State Opposition is predicting she will be gone in six months.

Standing amidst the wreckage and with carnage at the door, Gillard was hanging tough, despite acknowledging "anxious times ahead ... for those of you who have kept the faith".

"I will keep fighting," she said. "We will continue to fight to form a government in this country."

Abbott, while advising jubilant supporters to keep their enthusiasm in check until the outcome was determined, said the Coalition was back in business and was ready to govern.

"What is clear ... is that the Labor Party has definitely lost its majority, and what that means is that the Government has lost its legitimacy," he said.

But who will ultimately prevail remains in doubt.

The winning party will have to convince the independents that they will cater best to their specific interests, govern best with stability and in the national interest, and back this with the conditions that will be demanded.

These could swing from the unlikely extreme of a place in the ministry to a more likely agreement to ensure that the fundamental business of government is able to function - but with no guarantees on legislation outside these parameters.

THE DOUBTFULS
1. Boothby, (SA): Late counting has put Labor's Annabel Digance in front of sitting Liberal MP Andrew Southcott by 710 votes with 77 per cent of the vote counted. Postal and pre-poll votes, generally, tend to favour sitting MPs which is what the Coalition will be hoping for.

2. Brisbane (QLD): Sitting Labor MP Arch Bevis is trailing former Liberal MP Teresa Gambaro by 828 votes with 70 per cent of the vote counted. That leaves a lot of pre-poll and postals to be counted. Labour describes the contest as "neck and neck", relying on its superior postal vote processes to get Bevis across the line despite a swing against the Government of 5.3 per cent.

3. Corangamite (VIC): Sitting Labor MP Darren Cheeseman leads the Liberals' Sarah Henderson by 1189 votes with 80 per cent of the vote counted. Labor is "quitely confident" its postal vote campaign will get Cheeseman home despite a swing against Labor of just under 1 per cent.

4. Denison (TAS): Independent Andrew Wilkie rates himself a better than 50-50 chance of taking the seat from Labor after picking up nearly 22 per cent of the primary vote. The Australian Electoral Commission hasn't been able to distribute preferences to support that result, but the ABC's election analyst Antony Green has Wilkie winning the seat comfortably. Much depends on the flow of preferences from the Greens to Wilkie and from the Liberals to Wilkie.

5. Hasluck (WA): Liberal Ken Wyatt, potentially the first indigenous MP to be elected to the Lower House, leads sitting Labor MP Sharryn Jackson by 369 votes with three-quarters of the vote counted. It might not be enough to hold off a likely surge of Labor postal and pre-poll votes. Jackson has done well to limit the swing against Labor of 1.1 per cent.

6. Lindsay (NSW): Labor also is "quietly confident" of a win for sitting MP David Bradbury in this western Sydney seat, despite a swing of almost 6 per cent against it. Bradbury leads Liberal Fiona Scott by 1012 votes with 83 per cent of the vote counted. Labour reckons its superior postal vote campaign will help Bradbury maintain that lead to the final vote.

Likely outcome:
Labor will win Corangamite, Lindsay and possiblyHasluck to give it 73 seats. The Coalition might hold Boothby just, to give it 71 seats. Wilkie would be the fourth independent MP in the Lower House, leaving Brisbane too close to call.

Coalition's prospects:
The best the Coalition can reasonably expect is 72 seats in the new Parliament which means it needs all four independents to a minority government.

Labor's prospects:
Somewhat brighter. It may end up with 74 seats, needing only to rely on newly-elected Greens MP Adam Bandt and Wilkie, who describes himself as a middle-of-theroad sort of person, to retain government.