Analysis

The RCMP vs. Mark Norman: It's about more than just leaks

For those in the Ottawa establishment who’ve quietly cheered on the RCMP investigation into the country’s second-highest military commander, the charge laid against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman may become a scalding lesson in being careful what you wish for.

'There is probably a lot of different things that people won’t want aired,' analyst says

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the military's No. 2 and the former commander of the navy, has been at the nexus of politics, defence and bureaucratic establishments in Ottawa for a decade — his institutional knowledge could make life uncomfortable for many. (CBC )

For those in the Ottawa establishment who've quietly cheered on the RCMP investigation into the country's second-highest military commander, the charge laid against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman may become a scalding lesson in being careful what you wish for.

Despite being dressed up in the sexy language of an information leak, the heart of the scandal is really about politics, power, money and military procurement — or the lack thereof.

The single charge of breach of trust was laid against Norman on Friday by the same RCMP unit which investigated the Senate expense scandal — the sensitive and international investigations section.

Remember them?

The Mounties' case against Sen. Mike Duffy got hung up on the grey, fuzzy upper chamber rules surrounding expense claims and principal places of residence.

He was acquitted.

In this latest go-around, the RCMP are investigating Norman for allegedly blabbing to a Chantier-Davie shipyard executive about a cabinet decision on a preliminary, sole-source contract that was being put into limbo and in danger of possibly being killed.

Let's set aside — for a minute — the vague rules surrounding federal officials communicating with companies under preliminary contract and whether they are, or are not, entitled to hear sensitive information.

The Resolve-Class naval support ship Asterix is unveiled at a ceremony at the Davie shipyard in Levis, Que., on July 20, 2017. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The search warrants used by the Mounties to raid Norman's home, two Ottawa lobbying firms and the Levis, Que., shipyard, which was about to lease a supply ship to the navy, offer a tantalizing glimpse of the political, bureaucrat and business fecal storm that's ahead.

Emails attached to the warrants "contained all sorts of salty language between Admiral Norman and some other people," said Dave Perry, an analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a expert in procurement. "Do you think that was isolated just to him? I don't."

The Duffy trial called into question the integrity of the Senate.

The peril here is much wider.

As the military No. 2 and the former commander of the navy, Norman has, for almost a decade, been at the nexus of politics, defence and bureaucratic establishments in Ottawa.

Potential embarrassment

It may be stretching it to say he knows where all the bodies are buried, but his institutional knowledge will almost certainly make life uncomfortable for many.

"As much as the Duffy thing got involved in a bunch of dirty laundry, I think this has the potential to be worse by orders of magnitude," said Perry.

First of all, there is — what Perry calls — "the regional political dynamic."

The court records show Norman was convinced that Halifax-based Irving Shipbuilding wanted to kill the $670 million Davie shipyard lease arrangement and replace it with its own proposal.

A court case against Norman could see whatever contacts the notoriously media-shy Irvings have had with politicians and the bureaucracy, regardless of how innocent, dragged into the spotlight.

The Liberals could be forced to answer questions about the hiring of former CBC journalist James Cudmore, whose stories initially embarrassed the government.

And then, there is the greatest money swamp of all — defence procurement.

Long delays

Perry said the Norman case has the potential to touch on files that are "sensitive and ongoing."

The National Shipbuilding Strategy, started by the Conservatives but championed by the Liberals, is in trouble.

The reason the navy needed a leased cargo ship in the first place is because Seaspan, the Vancouver Shipyard where permanent supply ships are being built, is far behind schedule even after a $230 million design and preliminary work contract was announced last year.

The assistant deputy minister of materiel at National Defence, Pat Finn, recently said it would be 2022 before the first of two joint support ships arrive.

The reasons for that have never been fully explored in public.

And then there is the unusual decision by the former Conservative cabinet, on the eve of the last election, to rewrite sole-source regulations in order to push through that temporary supply ship from Davie.

It is a significant decision which has also never been given a full public airing.

"You would have to have lots of discussions about shipbuilding politics in order for this to go to trial," said Perry. "There is probably a lot of different things that people won't want aired; connections with lobbyist. I just think there's going to be all kinds of stuff."

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