Gerard Henderson is only the latest pundit to make what is by now a trite observation – state oppositions seem incapable of challenging the Labor stranglehold.

Online focus group research on the Queensland campaign conducted by Graham Young and me for The National Forum last week and again last night provides a clue as to why. The puzzle is more complicated than the usual story about poor candidates and fundraising disadvantage.

Coalition state governments in the 90s weren’t afraid to be economic and social reformers. Greiner and then Kennett set a cracking pace. Not only was the pace much too fast for voters’ speed limits, but the liberal economic agenda and particularly privatisation were deeply unpopular. By the time the gloss wore off, voters punished Coalition administrations for placing ideology over services. The final nail in the Liberal coffin was the 2002 SA election. The Libs were punished for electricity privatisation, and supply failures in searing southern summers.

Last night we asked voters in our focus group about electricity supply and privatisation. Neither have been on the campaign agenda. But the Coalition should have made electricity an issue. Beattie’s troubled third term began with supply failures in Brisbane, and some of our participants suspect that one reason for going early this time around was to avoid the grid creaking under the weight of thousands of air conditioners in what’s set to be a stinker of a Queensland summer. The Coalition could easily have tied this theme in both with the unpopularity of an early election and with their general message on infrastructure.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen, after all, famously proclaimed after his post electricity strike win in 1986 that the lights would stay on in Queensland for three years.

So why didn’t they? Part of the reason is probably incompetence. But another big part of the reason is that conservative oppositions remain reform wary. They’re scared of uttering the p word which voters hate. So elections at state level become contests about competence and leadership. That’s hard enough to win on from opposition, but the challenged Queensland conservatives have dug their own grave with Flegg’s blonde fortnight.

Similarly, voters in our focus groups found it hard to identify differences in vision between either party. One self described conservative commented that the Nats’ policies were too close to Labor. State oppositions are unable to articulate much ideological difference with Labor governments, and after a long spell out of power, find it difficult to play the competence card. Meanwhile their federal friends have thrown another sleeper out there with the timing of the T3 sale, which will remind Queenslanders in the bush just how much they hate privatisation (and that Barnaby voted for it).

If there are to be any conservative governments in any state from this election cycle, the Coalition at state level will have to come up with an appealing difference in vision from Labor. If Queensland is anything to go by, they will struggle.