The voting is over, but the real politics begins. With a dead heat in its general election, Australia now enters the unedifying twilight zone of post-election compromises that will see one loser or the other stitch together a government.

The pollsters had it about right. Julia Gillard's Labor Party did not do enough nationwide to retain its mandate. It was caned in Queensland, spurned in key parts of New South Wales, and its counterpunch in Victoria and South Australia was half-hearted. The Liberal-National Coalition led by Tony Abbott could not capitalise on a divided Government which had beheaded its leader, self-harmed during the campaign and over-rated the appeal of Ms Gillard as first woman Prime Minister.

The election-night results give neither side the 76 seats in Parliament needed to govern, with Labor thought to have claimed 72 and the coalition possibly 73. Both must wait for the counting of special votes for undecided electorates - and begin talking to four independents and a Green Party victor.

New Zealand is familiar with this pantomime, having endured post-election coalition talks five times since the adoption of MMP. We have watched the process mature from the immature antics of New Zealand First and Winston Peters in 1996, through the measured calculation of Helen Clark's Labour success in 2005 to the strategic mastery shown by John Key in composing his Government two years ago.

Hung parliaments are not necessarily recipes for indecision. Mr Key's deal was done in eight days. David Cameron's Conservatives in the United Kingdom were locked in stalemate with Labour for no time at all before outpointing the incumbents in wooing the Liberal Democrats.

However, the Australian result has less potential for a clearcut outcome. In the New Zealand and British experience, a major party would sit down with small parties to negotiate.

For Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott, those sitting across the negotiating table are a range of independents, three of whom have fallen out with the National Party, the Liberals' existing partner.

While these individuals might be temperamentally conservative and on the face of it leaning to the Coalition, there are antipathies that might drive them to the left, given suitable concessions from Labor for their rural constituencies. The fourth likely independent MP was an intelligence analyst who blew the whistle on John Howard's justification for the Iraq War but who has no overt allegiances. The Green MP has already said he will stay with the left.

The independents wearing their separate, individual, standings as possible king-makers provide a less predictable environment for negotiation and governing than this country has been used to. Here, even the one-man parties that are Peter Dunne's United Future and Jim Anderton's Progressives had a mandate of some kind on nationwide issues.

Minority governments with parliamentary agreements on confidence and supply have worked here and may be possible for Mr Abbott or Ms Gillard. Australia has not faced this post-election stasis since World War II.

The non-result is a defeat for Labor. It dumped Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister as a means of winning the election. His home state, Queensland, turned brutally against Labor's MPs and candidates, and the party has forfeited its political mandate from 2007 and its economic one from negotiating the financial crisis.

Mr Abbott was the underdog fighting history, as Australians have not discarded a one-term government since the 1930s. He has managed to secure a seat at the negotiating table and that is not, yet, enough. Australians must watch now as the haggling begins. It is unlikely to be highly principled, or pretty.