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People queue up for their COVID-19 vaccine booster shots at a clinic inside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto on Dec. 22, 2021.STRINGER/Reuters

As Canadians turn to their governments to lead them through everything from climate change to economic uncertainty to rising prices, and to deliver programs from health care to education with efficiency and intelligence, they keep getting reminders that the people in power, and the vast bureaucratic structures they bestride, too often only show excellence in one thing: sending cheques to taxpayers.

If Ontario could manage a booster campaign with the same alacrity with which it is distributing car registration rebate cheques this spring, there wouldn’t be a person in the province who hadn’t had three shots.

And if Ottawa could procure payroll software with the same determination and skill it displayed in quickly delivering pandemic support cheques, the Phoenix pay system might not be the embarrassment it is today.

Alas, 40 per cent of Ontario residents still haven’t received a third dose of vaccine. The province’s booster rollout has slowed to a crawl in April. (It’s a similar story in most of the rest of the country.)

But somehow the same Ontario government was able to announce the vehicle registration rebate in February, adopt legislation and print up and mail out millions of cheques, all in a matter of weeks. No doubt the fact that Ontario will hold a general election in June helped to focus the Ford government’s mind, but the speed of execution was still impressive.

The Trudeau government demonstrated a similar skillset when it got the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) up and running in a matter of weeks in March, 2020. It was like the money was shot out of a cannon.

But the same Trudeau government – and the Harper government before it, which introduced the Phoenix pay system in 2009 – has been unable to do something as straightforward as accurately paying all federal employees their earned wages in a timely fashion.

The Standing Senate Committee on National Finance found in 2018 that Phoenix, whose promised efficiencies were supposed to produce $70-million in annual savings, had instead resulted in $2.2-billion in unplanned expenditures. And the bills keep piling up, the latest coming this month in the form of a $106-million contract extension to IBM.

And don’t even get us started on decades of cost overruns and endlessly revised calendars in military procurement, or a health care system that costs more than most of our peers but delivers less bang for the buck than all but the hapless American health care disaster.

There is a competency gap in Canadian government – but the gap sometimes seems to be, well, highly selective. Governments with vast resources too often only seem to put their minds to the task when it serves their immediate political interests.

Quebec, for instance, is seeing such a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations that on Thursday it extended its indoor mask mandate to mid-May. And yet the government has let its booster campaign peter out, even though 46 per cent of the eligible population has yet to receive a third dose.

Oh, but Quebec City will have no problem digging up the address of every adult who earns less than $100,000 a year and sending them $500. This $3.2-billion giveaway, announced in its March budget, will see the cheques arrive in time for a general election this fall.

That’s a choice, one made consciously by the Legault government. Its ostensible reason for mailing out $500 cheques is to offset the impact of inflation. But it apparently sees no reason to use a tiny fraction of the same resources to do something far less expensive but somewhat more complicated: creating and managing a program to get more boosters into more people during this sixth wave of the pandemic.

In general, Canadian governments work well, or at least well enough. The goal (too often not achieved) is to have them humming away in the background, competently yet unnoticed. But in an emergency, it’s critically important that they display visible competency. Canadians need in those moments to see them as able to respond quickly and smartly.

No doubt the election windfalls being sent to people in Quebec and Ontario are meant to dull the memory of how often their governments mishandled the COVID-19 emergency. What the cheques will instead do is remind voters that the one emergency that reliably gets politicians to show off their administrative chops is an upcoming election.

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