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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during Question Period on Jan. 30.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Oh God they’re back.

As the ritual shaking of jowls resumes in Ottawa, we are reminded again of how much the government and opposition are agreed: notably, in the belief that the government is responsible for every sparrow that falls, in the economy in particular.

They have, indeed, a mutual interest in maintaining this fiction: the opposition, because it wants to blame the government for everything that has gone wrong; the government, because it wants to claim credit for everything that has gone right. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

You would think governments would not want to play this game, as at any given time things are likely to be mostly going wrong. But that is to overlook the possibilities for blaming the preceding government for the present awfulness, or warning how much worse the opposition would make things if they were in government.

In fact things are not particularly awful at the moment. By most of the usual measures, they have rarely been better. Unemployment is the lowest it has been in more than 50 years. The poverty rate, by any measure, is at an all-time low, while after-tax incomes, adjusted for inflation, are at an all-time high. Inflation is moderating. House prices are falling.

Here again, however, neither side has an interest in admitting it: the opposition, for obvious reasons; the government, because it does not want to be accused of complacency. That, and because it provides an opportunity to talk about all the things it is doing to put things right.

Not that this should be taken as an admission that its previous efforts had failed in this regard. Rather, it takes the form of resolving to carry on doing more of what it has already been doing. Throne speeches and incumbent campaign literature are filled with promises to “continue” to do this and “doing even more” about that.

What neither side can ever admit is that government is not the centre of the universe. Most of the things that are going right have little to do with any positive action on government’s part; the most you can say is that government has not made them worse. The same could be said for most of the things that are going wrong, with the exception of the things that are going wrong inside the government.

There is never any shortage of these; the larger government has grown, the more numerous they have become. Which is to say: All governments are incompetent. Some, like the current government, may be more incompetent than others. But the greater part of the incompetence is systemic.

Governments are incompetent because they are trying to do too many things, mostly because we demand they must. Here again government and opposition are in broad accord. They disagree on the government’s actual competence, but on its potential competence they are as one. The notion that government might try to do fewer things better, rather than more things worse, simply does not enter the conversation.

Take health care, which is in an unambiguously awful state, with median wait times now exceeding half a year – median, meaning half of all surgeries take even longer than that. What, then, do governments federal and provincial propose to do about it? More of the same, mostly. What does the opposition urge them to do instead? More of the same, only more of it.

The same applies to most of the worst policies and most dysfunctional programs. Supply management. Industrial subsidies. Defence procurement. Employment insurance. The Canada Pension Plan. Higher education. These are the really deep and abiding policy failures, beside which recent ruckuses over passport lineups or surplus consultants pale into insignificance. Yet they are rarely talked about, and never debated – if by debate you mean anyone proposing to do anything differently.

There are exceptions: major policy changes, implemented after robust debate, to broadly beneficial effect. Free trade. Balanced budgets. Central-bank independence. The Canada Child Benefit (part of the explanation for those record-low poverty rates). Of course, in every case this amounted to cleaning up the mess made by previous governments. In time someone will have to do the same with daycare and pharmacare. But by then someone will have begun messing up the things government got right. In some cases – balanced budgets, central-bank independence – they already have.

I don’t have a quick answer for any of this. The reasons all parties tend to converge on the wrong policy are well-known, and difficult to overcome. But the starting point for change is recognizing the underlying problem: that on most of the issues that count, the government and the opposition are fundamentally on the same side.