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People cast their ballots at the Delta Hotel on voting day for the 2021 Canadian election in Montreal, Quebec on Sept., 20, 2021.ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP/Getty Images

There is not much to quibble with in the terms of reference for a full public inquiry into foreign interference that the federal Liberals unveiled on Thursday, with one exception – the date at the top of the document.

It has been just over six months since The Globe and Mail began publishing details of China’s attempts to meddle in two successive Canadian elections, including efforts to intimidate one of the most outspoken critics of Beijing, Conservative MP Michael Chong.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first attempted to downplay those concerns, until mounting public pressure prodded him to launch his ill-fated substitute for a public inquiry, the appointment of former governor-general David Johnston as a special rapporteur.

That effort collapsed under its own weight, in large part because of the government’s failure to consult with the other parties in Parliament.

The Liberals have now arrived where they should have started, back in March: a full-throated public inquiry, endorsed by the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP. Broad parliamentary backing is desirable for any issue that rises to the level of a public inquiry, but it is essential in this instance, with the integrity of the electoral system at issue.

For months, that fundamental point has seemingly eluded the Liberals. However belatedly, the government has acknowledged the need for consensus.

Equally encouraging is the structure and timetable of the inquiry. The first tranche of the inquiry’s report is due by the end of February and will focus on interference by China and other state (and non-state) actors in the 2019 and 2021 elections. The inquiry will assess the impact not only on the overall outcome, but also at the riding level. And, critically, Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, as inquiry commissioner, will scrutinize what actions the government took in response.

Inquiry into foreign interference in elections to be led by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, government confirms

That will allow the inquiry to answer the most important set of questions: What did the government know about China’s meddling, when did it know it, and what did it do?

The terms of reference empower Justice Hogue to determine what information will be brought to public light and what will remain secret, while instructing her to “maximize the degree of public transparency.”

The inquiry’s framework says that transparency must be balanced with the need to avoid disclosures that could injure the “critical interests of Canada or its allies, national defence or national security.” The Attorney-General cannot veto the commissioner’s decisions, but there is a process that allows him to present formal arguments against disclosure.

The commissioner must make disclosure the default, allowing Canadians to see for themselves what Beijing has been up to. The national-security bureaucracy has been indulged in its reflexive secrecy for far too long, waving the phrase of “classified documents” as some sort of talisman against mere citizens being allowed to view sacred texts. Much of what The Globe has reported should not be shielded by such invocations.

The government has been able to declassify information, while redacting the most sensitive components, but has resisted doing so.

Justice Hogue should not make the same mistake. Beijing is well aware of what it has done, and tried to do. The commissioner has an opportunity to push back the boundary of official secrecy, while protecting intelligence sources and methods. Her lack of steeping in the national-security culture of secrecy may be cause for optimism.

As for Attorney-General Arif Virani, he needs to demonstrate that he recognizes that he is to act in the interests of the Crown, not as the political bodyguard of the cabinet.

The inquiry’s timetable should allow the government to enact any recommended reforms before a federal election in 2025. But it would be foolish to think that Beijing and others will wait until a campaign is imminent to meddle anew. The Liberals should commit to a speedy implementation of any recommendations, and move quickly this fall to put into place a foreign-agent registry.

The inquiry announced on Thursday opens up the possibility of restoring Canadians’ corroded faith in the electoral system, damage resulting chiefly from the Liberals’ dodges and delays. And Justice Hogue has before her the opportunity to set a better standard for transparency in government – the best repudiation possible of China’s malevolent efforts.

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