Tony Abbott has picked up the reins of Australia's leadership cautiously, deliberately and with little fanfare.

Australia's new prime minister delivered an acceptance speech in Sydney on Saturday night that reflected the conservative tone of his election campaign, promising to govern for all and to spring no surprises.

Mr Abbott repeated his campaign promises to "stop the boats", get the budget back to surplus and repeal the carbon tax.

"The time for governing has arrived," Mr Abbott said.

He also gloated rather meekly before congratulating the departing prime minister Kevin Rudd.

"... I can inform you that the Australian Labor Party vote is at the lowest level in more than 100 years," Mr Abbott said.

"(Mr Rudd) has been the prime minister of this country not once but twice, so I acknowledge his service to the nation of Australia," he said.

While the Labor loss was resounding, the coalition victory wasn't as convincing as appeared likely in the final week of the campaign, or in the first hour-or-so of counting.

Mr Abbott will lead a government that is likely to occupy 88-to-91 seats in the new parliament to the ALP's 55.

Mr Rudd salvaged at least that much from the wreckage of the election, pointing out the ALP had held onto all its Queensland seats and its entire front bench.

Pushing a nationalistic theme, Mr Rudd called for a return of the unity he is widely seen to have forsaken and which has been largely blamed for Labor's poor showing.

"Tonight is the time to unite as the great Australian nation, because whatever our politics may be, we are all first and foremost Australian," he said.

Mr Rudd also took an ungracious swipe at his direct opponent in his seat of Griffith, Bill Glasson.

"It would be un-prime ministerial of me to say `Bill Glasson eat your heart out', so I won't," he said.

Mr Rudd also used his concession speech to announce his resignation as leader of the parliamentary Labor Party.