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Minister of Public Safety, Democratic Institutions and Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc speaks at a news conference on the appointment of Quebec Court of Appeal judge Marie-Josee Hogue for the inquiry into foreign interference, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Sept. 7.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc tried to put the best face on the public inquiry that he announced Thursday into foreign interference in Canadian elections, stressing that the terms of reference and choice of commissioner had all-party support.

But the months-long delay in calling the inquiry has done more damage to the Liberals’ already-damaged brand. The government should have acted seven months ago. The delay could well cost them, politically.

Back in February, when The Globe and Mail first reported that China had pulled levers and strings in an effort to tilt the 2021 elections in the Liberals’ favour, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could have called a public inquiry on the spot. Instead, he complained about people leaking sensitive information to the media.

As revelations proliferated, Mr. Trudeau asked David Johnston to examine the evidence. But when the former governor-general failed to recommend a public inquiry, opposition politicians pushed him into resigning.

Since then, the Liberals have been negotiating with the opposition parties to set the terms of reference for an inquiry and to find a willing and qualified commissioner. Had the Liberals moved more quickly, the worst revelations of a judicial inquiry might have arrived during the summer doldrums. Instead, testimony now most likely will be heard before Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue in October. And November. And December. And January. And February.

Though much of the testimony will be held in camera, by the time the preliminary report arrives Feb. 29, we may know the answers to the questions that matter most: What did the Prime Minister know, when did he know it, and what did he do about it? That is not a good look. It may be no coincidence that Mr. Trudeau was halfway around the world on an Asian tour when the announcement came out.

Meanwhile, his government continues to delay launching a registry of agents operating on behalf of a foreign power in Canada. Why?

Mr. LeBlanc held his press conference a few hours after Pierre Poilievre spoke to his caucus, as the Conservative Party’s convention in Quebec City got under way, one year after he became party leader.

Polls have the Conservatives in or near majority-government territory. Among younger voters, Mr. Poilievre is especially popular, with the Liberals in third place in some polls in that age group. Whoever would have predicted that?

Economic insecurity is the reason, of course. Younger and economically precarious voters have been traumatized by rising inflation and rising interest rates, and by skyrocketing housing prices. Mr. Poilievre targeted these issues early and has been pounding them hard.

Yes, the Conservative solutions seem simplistic. But at least they are focused on what matters most to people. And now Chinese election interference is back in the mix.

Much of what Justin Trudeau hoped to achieve has unravelled. He wanted to grow the size of the middle class. Instead, the middle class is under siege. He hoped to balance the federal budget by stimulating economic growth. Eight years later, growth and productivity are both sluggish, and the Liberals have no plan for balancing the budget.

We witnessed the extraordinary sight of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland saying the Bank of Canada’s decision not to hike interest rates this week was “welcome relief” for Canadians. You know things are bad when the Finance Minister is reduced to hoping that the bank doesn’t raise rates again.

Mr. Trudeau sought a free-trade agreement with China. Instead, relations with that country are at their lowest ebb since Mao died. He acknowledged Thursday at an event held by Bloomberg that a rapprochement with China is impossible, “at this particular moment.”

The Liberals have about 18 months to get back on track. They have made commitments to the NDP on pharmacare and dental care that they must, and will want to, meet. They need a plan to rapidly increase housing starts. They need to get the federal government’s finances under control.

And they need to take measures, based on the recommendations of this new public inquiry, to ensure that the federal election expected in 2025 is free, fair and untainted by outsiders. Right now, that election is one the Liberals may not be looking forward to.

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