Aus 'kingmakers' to hold talks
Sydney - Australia's "kingmaker" independent MPs were set to hold talks on Tuesday after weekend elections failed to produce a clear winner, triggering the worst political deadlock in decades.
The three were expected to meet in Canberra as they are courted by both Prime Minister Julia Gillard's left-leaning Labour Party and the conservative Liberal/National coalition.
Saturday's dramatic elections remain on a knife-edge with Labour holding 72 seats against 70 for the coalition as officials laboriously count postal and absentee votes, a process that could take more than a week.
Media projections give the two sides 73 seats each, short of the 76 needed for an absolute majority in the 150-member lower chamber, the House of Representatives.
"The make-up of the parliament is looking interesting to say the least," said Rob Oakeshott, one of the three MPs who are expected to hold the balance of power, along with Tony Windsor and Bob Katter.
"At best... it's looking very, very tight," Oakeshott said. "All of these final seats are critical."
Greens do good
The trio have responded to their sudden and surprising entry into the limelight by promising to negotiate together as Labour fights to stay in power and the coalition looks to end Gillard's brief reign.
Voters turned on Australia's first woman leader with a negative swing of about 5.4% after she dumped elected prime minister Kevin Rudd in June and ran a chaotic campaign plagued by leaks.
The Greens party enjoyed a record vote share and its lone MP, Adam Bandt, appears likely to side with Labour, which bookmakers have installed as slight favourites to form a minority government.
However, Liberal leader Tony Abbott made a renewed pitch to become Australia's next leader, saying Labour is now battling with "civil war".
"I believe that only the coalition can offer Australia the stable and competent government that it now deserves," he told reporters.
"We will not get a new politics from an old government, particularly an old government as riven by factionalism, as controlled by faceless men, as the current government so obviously is," he added.
Kingmakers from rural constituencies
Several Labour insiders have pointed the finger at party colleagues, including shadowy backroom operators, over the disastrous slide from record popularity under Rudd to Saturday's resounding slap by voters.
The debacle has kept Abbott, a Catholic conservative who questions man's role in climate change, in the hunt to lead the country, a prospect which was unthinkable when the renowned maverick took charge of a divided opposition last year.
The "kingmakers" are all from rural constituencies, with Katter's seat of Kennedy encompassing some 569 000km² of northern Queensland, an area bigger than Spain.
Katter, known for his Texas-style cowboy hat, wants greater protection for banana and sugarcane farmers, while Windsor wants better water supplies in his parched electorate and Oakeshott favours carbon trading to ease pollution.
But all three have expressed a desire for stable government and better broadband internet, a leaning which could favour Labour and its project to wire 93% of homes with high-speed fibre-optic cable.
"We can make this work. We've had a little bit of crisis in recent years so let's try it a different way and I think we'll find that maybe it will be a better way," Windsor said.