In a turnaround to early estimates, the latest count gave Labour 72 seats to the conservative’s 69, with both falling short of the 76 seats needed to form a government.
Now Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott are scrabbling to form a coalition with the handful of independent and Green MPs who can act as kingmakers.
The Australian mining industry, the largest exporter of coal in the world, is holding its breath. If left-leaning Labour scrapes a victory it is almost certain to introduce a levy of 30 per cent on miners.
A win for the right-of-centre Liberal-National coalition would see the tax scrapped.
Gillard, setting out her case for power, said the government had attracted the majority share of the vote. “What that means is that the majority of Australians wanted a Labour government,” she said.
The scenario of a minority conservative government, on the other hand, rests on opposition leader Tony Abbott receiving a larger number of seats than Labour, and assumptions that the independents would naturally align themselves to the conservatives.
But independent Tony Windsor, challenged that assumption, saying he had long ago quit as a member of the National Party, which makes up half of the conservative coalition.
He said: “I gave up smoking at the same time. I’ve ridden myself of two cancers.”