Australian politics is notoriously bare-knuckled. Little is held back and nothing much is conceded. All that must change, however, if Labor's Julia Gillard is to remain Prime Minister for three years.

She has retained power after two independent MPs made king-makers by a deadlocked election more than a fortnight ago agreed to join her Government. Critical to her survival will be keeping them and one Green MP on board.

She will need to quickly demonstrate the deftness in consultation and deal-making that has allowed Helen Clark and John Key to operate successful Administrations on this side of the Tasman. The odds are stacked against her.

Ms Gillard controls 76 seats in Australia's 150-member House of Representatives. Always hanging over her will be the fact that if one of her MPs were to die or resign because of a scandal, the subsequent byelection could trigger another general election.

Equally, she knows the independent MPs have committed themselves to support her only on finance bills and unwarranted no-confidence motions.

One of them, Tony Windsor, has reserved the right to move no-confidence motions in the Government as he sees fit, while the support of the other, Rob Oakeshott, will not extend to "exceptional circumstances", which, according to a vague pronouncement, could include maladministration or corruption.

Both men are former members of the conservative National Party.

Supporting Ms Gillard puts them at odds with many who voted for them.

More logically, they would have thrown their support behind the Liberal-National Coalition headed by Tony Abbott, as did another rural independent, Bob Katter.

They were swayed by a regional spending package that, among other things, gives rural Australia priority in the roll-out of a national broadband network. If such projects fall behind schedule, their support is bound to waver.

The fact that Ms Gillard will have her work cut out has already been emphasised by the grandstanding of the two long-term MPs during the 17-day stand-off. They relished the chance for self-indulgence provided by their period in the sun.

One of the few pluses for the Prime Minister is that they will want the leverage they enjoy from holding the balance of power to continue as long as possible. Indeed, the pair say their main reason for supporting Ms Gillard is that she is more likely to run Parliament to its full term. Mr Abbott, in their eyes, could be happy to offer Australians another election in the expectation of a decisive victory.

Political stability offers an obvious advantage. But much of this would be negated if Ms Gillard's Government achieved little in three years. Every time she wishes to pass legislation, the numbers will have to be assembled. Her bargaining skills will be tested to the limit if she wishes not to be hamstrung on many issues.

She must, for example, find a way to deal with the Greens' wish for gays to be allowed to marry. Hostility can be expected from the rural independents unless they, in turn, are accommodated in some way.

In at least one field, however, Ms Gillard's resolve may be strengthened. A coherent response to climate change, an issue that barely featured in the election campaign, is high on the agenda of both the Greens and the independents.

Labor's successful economic stewardship during the global recession probably warranted a second term. Much of its good work was undone, however, by the abrupt dumping of Kevin Rudd.

The electorate damned it for that, while declining to elevate the erratic Mr Abbott to power. The wash-up has delivered Ms Gillard unlikely bedfellows who present a challenge as unfamiliar as it is formidable.