The registration desk was unmanned and security was standing firm. Crikey was stuck in the foyer of the Melbourne Convention Centre. Everyone was inside to hear Australia’s first female prime minister, still without the mandate she so craved and, perhaps, on her way out.

At the top of the stairs, with muffled cheers below, we huddled around an iPad with the two security guards to watch Gillard take to the stage, finally, at 11:13pm. The applause was restrained, the chants were limp: “Julia, Julia, Julia!”

She didn’t have good news.

She channeled Barack Obama at the campaign launch last Sunday, and on election night Gillard borrowed from another Democrat: “Friends, Bill Clinton once said in a previous election in America the people have spoken, but it’s going to take a little while to determine what they’ve said. And that is where we find ourselves tonight.

“Obviously this is too close to call. There are many seats where the result is undecided and where it will take a number of days of counting to determine the result. Friends, as we know in our great democracy every vote is important, every vote must be counted and we’ll see that happen in the days ahead of us.”

But the message was clear. Voters in Queensland, voters in western Sydney, had rejected this government wholeheartedly. Labor couldn’t form a government in its own right, and will need mostly conservative-leaning independents to back their cause. The wooing started immediately.

“What we know from tonight’s result is there will be a number of independents in the house of representatives playing a role as the next government of Australia is formed,” she said.

All were named and congratulated: Rob Oakeshott from Lyne, Tony Windsor in New England, and that loveable rogue Bob Katter in Kennedy. Plus, new Melbourne Greens MP Adam Brandt and independent Andrew Wilkie, the “possible” winner in Denison (Antony Green’s super-computer is calling it a victory). Her new best friends, all.

“What I can also say to you tonight is I acknowledge the election of these independents and a member of the Greens to the House of Representatives. I have had a good track record in the federal parliament working positively and productively with the independents in the House of Representatives and working with the Greens in the Senate. I believe in respecting the role of every representative in the House of Representatives including the independents and the Green.”

There was congratulations to her opponent, too. Tony Abbott is made of “stern stuff”, she said; “a formidable advocate for his side of politics.”

Labor had stood up for fairness and decency, she said. She dug in the pumps, mustering the conviction the true believers needed to hear:

“There are anxious days ahead. But in those anxious days I’ll keep fighting for our positive plan for this nation’s future. The fight for that plan isn’t over yet. We will continue to fight for it in the days to come. We will continue to fight to form a government in this country to deliver to the working Australians, working men and women of this country a government that understands their needs, values their jobs, wants to see their children get a decent education, wants to make sure that they never have to fear illness because healthcare is there for them, to make sure they never have to feel the loss of their rights at work, and a government that is as optimistic about their future as this nation deserves.”

We can hear cheers ring out below us. Labor remains in power … at least for the next few days.

A cleaner wheels past. Then, the crowd begins to file out, slowly and silently. John Faulkner’s one of the first.