“Kingmaker” independent MPs were meeting after vote counting continues to fail to produce a clear winner, triggering the worst political deadlock in decades.
The three were expected to talk into the night in Canberra as they are courted by both Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor party and Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National coalition.
Saturday’s dramatic elections remain on a knife-edge with Labor holding 71 seats against 72 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 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.”
The trio have responded to their sudden and surprising entry into the limelight by promising to negotiate together as Labor fights to stay in power and the coalition looks to end Gillard’s brief reign.
But Katter also pledged to use his “bit of power” to benefit rural residents during a strongly worded attack on the media.
“We’ve had it up to here with the media. You people have given a run to (written stories about) every single idea known to man except us,” Katter, wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, told reporters in Canberra.
“We’ve got to the stage … where every four days a farmer in Australia was committing suicide. Did you give us a run? No, and now that we’ve got a bit of power you will be listening to us, my friend, not dictating to us.”
Voters turned on Australia’s first woman leader with a negative swing of about 5.4 percent 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 Labor, which bookmakers have installed as slight favourite to form a minority government.
However, Liberal leader Tony Abbott made a renewed pitch to become Australia’s next leader, saying Labor is now gripped by “civil war”.
“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 said.
Several Labor 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, an unthinkable prospect when the renowned maverick took charge of a riven opposition last year.
The “kingmakers” are all from rural constituencies, with Katter’s seat of Kennedy encompassing some 569,000 square kilometres (220,000 square miles) of northern Queensland, an area bigger than Spain.
Katter, a renegade known for his forthright style, 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, which could favour Labor and its project to wire 93 percent of homes with high-speed fibre-optic cable.
Australian share prices initially shrugged off the political crisis on Monday but closed down 1.08 percent on Tuesday, with some dealers blaming the ongoing uncertainty.
“It’s not just due to the weak lead from overseas, but clearly election uncertainty is acting like a lead weight around the neck of some of our major stocks,” said Austock Securities senior client adviser Michael Heffernan.
Australia has not had a hung parliament since World War II, and last had a crisis on this scale in 1975, when the queen’s representative dismissed an elected prime minister.