Incumbency, it seems, is the talk of the political town at the moment. Morris Iemma’s government in NSW seems set to repeat the Beattie and Bracks wins of last year, and when talk turns to the Howard government’s chances of survival, the strength of the economy and the Coalition’s ability to turn the spending tap on with abandon are perceived as Howard’s trump cards.

But, is this the full story? After all, a plethora of political scientists and pundits produced mathematical modelling in 2000 to prove that Al Gore couldn’t lose the election when the Democrats were presiding over such prosperity.

In fact, research conducted by Graham Young and me for The National Forum  might tell a different tale.

In Queensland last year, the dynamic we identified was a protest vote that went missing, because it was turned back on the opposition. Voters wanted, at the very least, to give Beattie a kick in the pants, and many wanted to turf him out. But a last minute Liberal leadership change, a woeful campaign, and the Premier’s political touch combined to deliver a win for Labor only slightly less stunning in its dimensions than the 2004 landslide. Voters were saying, in effect, that they would be more than happy to get their baseball bats out if only they were offered an alternative which met basic thresholds of political competence.

If the polls are right, NSW looks set to reproduce much the same pattern.

Focus group research we conducted last week, interviewing a panel of voters who’d indicated that they were prepared to change their votes, picked up even more disillusionment with the Iemma government than was evident in Queensland. “Hobson’s choice” captured the mood precisely. Independents (and to a lesser degree, Greens) are going to harvest the fruits of some of this despair, but Labor is going to hold on because the Debnam Liberals just can’t get over the acceptability barrier in terms of competence and trust. Participants cited the influence of the “religious right” on the NSW Libs, and the knifing of John Brogden, and these themes seem to have established a baseline perception that the opposition is divided and incompetent.

In an era where ideological divisions between the parties are blurred, politics often becomes a contest between competing teams of managerialists. Incumbency provides an advantage, but the mismanagement of services and an air of political disarray too often goes together with long term governments.

It’s said that in Australian politics, oppositions don’t win elections, but governments lose them. Queensland and NSW suggest that adage has to be modified – governments don’t lose elections, even if voters are fed up with them, unless the opposition is competent.

It’s fascinating to contemplate that Latham may have lost in 2004 when Labor could have otherwise won had he been a more convincing leader and the opposition been more united. The trend of the federal polls since March last year suggests that if the long term Howard government really is on the nose, incumbency won’t save it, provided Rudd can continue to present Labor as a viable alternative.