This rather vacuous election campaign resulted in a thrilling finish, with Julia Gillard clinging on to power by the barest of margins: just one seat.

It was eerily quiet in the morning as the Canberra press gallery tried to firm up what time the three independents would call a presser with their all important announcement…

Until Bob Katter went rogue. The fiery independent MP for Kennedy split from the Three Amigos trio and called a press conference in his office at 1.30pm, declaring his support for the Coalition.

Shortly after, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor announced — after a painfully drawn out 20 minute speech by Oakeshott — that they both would be supporting a Gillard government, giving Gillard the thumbs up to continue as PM.

But how will Gillard negotiate a government with so many interested parties and different agendas? It won’t be easy, seems to be the collective message from a wary commentariat.

Michelle Grattan at The Age is already imaging the future: “In the months and years ahead, Gillard will be caught between the need to take some tough, bold decisions, and lowest-common-denominator buyoff politics to accommodate the small players.”

Yes, it’s a tough road ahead for our newly minted PM. “It is Gillard’s task, given she failed to win the popular vote, the primary vote or more seats than the Coalition, to mould public support to her cause and portray any opposition to that cause as being destructive, anti-democratic and against the will of the people,” says Dennis Shanahan in The Australian.

“This is a recipe for weak and uncertain government…” declares Paul Kelly in The Australian. In another article in The Oz, Kelly expands his argument: “Despite the talk of sunshine, the legacy is more likely to be bad political blood, a war between the pro-Labor rural independents and the Nationals, and a guaranteed Tony Abbott-led Coalition campaign that the Gillard government is without legitimacy.”

Michael Stutchbury worries for the Australian economy in The Oz: “Australia political peril now is that a minority Labor government with no policy mandate will be consumed by a struggle to grab a bigger share of our extraordinary national prosperity.”

Let’s not forgot the facts. “Yesterday’s theatre of the three rural independents doesn’t change one thing: the new government will be a minority administration,” notes Peter van Onselen in The Oz. “That means it will be inherently unstable, no matter how much the independents like to spruik stability as a key criterion in their decision-making.”

We’re dealing with precious political ground, says Samantha Maiden in The Oz: “A single by-election. A no-confidence motion. All could kill this fragile government.”

You think the last fortnight was tough? “…as this Labor – Green – Wilkie – Oakeshott – Windsor alliance is lowered gingerly into place in the House of Representatives, the path ahead makes what has gone before look like child’s play,” argues Annabel Crabb at The Drum.

It’ll test Gillard’s leadership skills. “If Julia Gillard can make a go of governing Australia over the next three years, her next job should be to succeed Ban Ki-Moon as UN general secretary,” jokes David Penberthy in the Daily Telegraph.

No leaks, scandals and rats in the ranks — the Labor party must be on its best behaviour. “With the demise of just one MP and a subsequent byelection enough to cause another election or a change of government, Labor sources said last night that discipline within the ALP would have to be rock solid if Ms Gillard were to govern for the next three years as she has promised,” reports Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Dennis Atkins offers up specific steps that Gillard should take to strengthen her leadership in the Courier-Mail, including dealing with the Kevin Rudd problem by giving him the foreign ministry, not awarding the ‘faceless men’ with ministerial positions and order a full review of Labor’s performance.

Gillard’s coalition is a mismatched merry band of adventurers, notes Tony Wright at The Age:

“Gillard, Prime Minister to a rainbow collective, could have been excused for breaking into a song from that old musical Hair: ”When the moon is in the Seventh House/And Jupiter aligns with Mars/Then peace will guide the planets/And love will steer the stars.’ She didn’t, of course.”

But despite the formidable challenges, this can be a reforming government. “If the good intentions expressed yesterday count for anything, the new minority government will be more reforming than was the Rudd government or than a majority-Gillard government was likely to be,” writes Mike Steketee in The Oz.

This is a historic moment — even if it does come with a price tag. “Julia Gillard finally became the nation’s first popularly elected female Prime Minister yesterday,” writes Simon Benson in the Daily Tele. “And it only cost $10 billion — and a ministry for one of the two country independents who delivered Labor into the first national minority government in 70 years.”

Lenore Taylor offers a fascinating explanation in the SMH of how the two independents Windsor and Oakeshott weighed up the promises and policies from the two main parties. “Australia’s next prime minister was chosen just before 2pm yesterday by two blokes on a green couch in small office in a far flung corner of Parliament House,” says Taylor.

It wasn’t so much that Labor won, but that the Coalition lost. “The Coalition lost the race for the two independents’ loyalty because of the hairy-chested warnings of another election, and soon, from some Liberal sections. This was what Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott called background noise,” says Malcolm Farr in the Daily Tele.

It was the end of an exhausting campaign, at least for the media. “…the machinery of democracy was proving excruciating by day 17 of wheeling and dealing. The media was fed up with waiting, tired of having nothing to say to their cameras, sick of dealing with people who don’t leak, don’t issue transcripts and make key announcements at 10 o’clock at night. The independents never learnt to play by the gallery’s rules,” notes David Marr in The Age.

Janet Albrechtsen gets cynical in The Oz over the independents taking their time to decide:

“The transformation from irrelevant backbenchers to media tarts playing kingmakers was too quick. Now we know that their singular focus on stability has been a singular focus on making sure they remain in the spotlight for as long as possible.”

Rob Oakeshott really milked that speech for everything he could. “No one asked Rob Oakeshott whether he’d tuned in to new TV reality show The X Factor. But he appeared to bow to the theatrics of reality show judges in presenting a decision without historical precedent,” points out Patrick Carlyon in the Herald Sun.

Not that a Gillard government is in any way illegitimate. Peter Brent at The Oz explains how and why Labor has also won the two-party preferred vote. “If declaration votes had behaved like their 2007 counterparts, the Coalition would have won the 2pp. So for a while it looked at least possible that the Coalition had won the national vote. But they didn’t. Labor did.”

“The rapid ascendancy of Gillard would give even the most ambitious, career “goal-hanger” a few moments of self-doubt. So how do leaders become equipped for their next role?” asks Pia Lee in The Australian, as she offers up advice and CEO strategies for coping with the top job.

Sure, second place is just the first loser, but let’s not forget Tony Abbott just yet.”He missed out by the narrowest of margins on claiming the nation’s top job but Tony Abbott was applauded as a hero by colleagues when he stepped forward to accept election defeat last night,” writes Malcolm Farr in the Daily Tele.

“If it’s possible to have a triumph in losing, Tony Abbott has a triumph,” declares Dennis Shanahan at The Oz.

It’s unlikely that Abbott would be feeling overly triumphant this morning. And many are tipping that the aggressive attack-dog Abbott will return. “Despite calls for consensus politics, for the next three years Australians should expect a Liberal-led opposition to behave like an animal that’s tasted blood and is hunting down its limping prey,” says Tim Wilson in The Age.

Australian finally has a government, but it’s going to be a nail-biting three years.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey