Much of the Coalition’s enormous success in becoming not merely electorally competitive but to reach the verge of forming government lies in its successful selling of the idea of competence — Labor is incompetent, we are competent. Simple.

It’s true that Labor’s abject failure to explain just what a good economic manager it has been — as evidenced by yesterday’s GDP figures and the number of Australians in work — is partly to blame for this. Labor has also been the target of a deliberate campaign of distortion and deceit by News Ltd and, to a lesser extent the ABC, that has portrayed successful programs like the BER as “debacles”. Nevertheless, great credit must go to Tony Abbott, who spotted Labor’s weakness, homed in on it, and use all his political skills and aggression to exploit it. Regardless of the result, Abbott’s campaign should be a playbook for generations of politicians to come.

There’s accordingly a rich irony in the fact that, on the cusp of victory, Abbott and his economic team have today been made to look like innumerates in front of the three independents who will decide their fate. In response, Abbott tried to re-define competence. Economic competence, he insisted this morning, was not about costings trivia like what interest rates were used to calculate savings.

Perhaps — but then what is competence, then, if not attention to detail and an obsession with ensuring the utmost care with taxpayers’ dollars? If competence is not found in sound and thorough process, where is it? Is it demonstrated in outcomes? In economic growth, for example? In keeping Australians in work? In a low inflation rate? And who, specifically, is competent — the politicians who take the credit for decisions but who duck responsibility for failures, or their public servants who advise them and carry out their instructions, frequently well, sometimes poorly? And why are governments competent or not? A government that does nothing has less risk of making errors than a government commitment to change and action.

Competence requires much more than just showing up.