Analysis

There are many questions about the Mark Norman affair but Tories keep asking the same one

The Conservative opposition beat its head against a brick wall Wednesday after two days of successfully hammering cracks into the Liberal government's stony silence over the handling of the criminal case involving the military's former second-in-command.

'We, unfortunately, cannot take Scott Brison at his word and there should be a thorough public accounting'

Every question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took from the Conservative benches in the House of Commons Wednesday demanded to know why the prime minister has not released cabinet documents related to Mark Norman's trial. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Conservative opposition beat its head against a brick wall Wednesday after two days of successfully hammering cracks into the Liberal government's stony silence over the handling of the criminal case involving the military's former second-in-command.

It should be understood, as the old political saying goes, that question period should never be confused with answer period.

But the tag team of Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen and deputy leader Lisa Raitt, earlier this week, managed to — ever so slightly — add important details to the public record in the dense but significant case surrounding Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

They managed to successfully goad Treasury Board President Scott Brison into defending himself against accusations of political interference in the shipbuilding file which is at the centre of the criminal case.

And judging by the looks on the faces in the government benches, on Monday and Tuesday, they managed to shame, or at least irritate, Liberals who hold openness and transparency as an article of political faith.

Watch as Tories question the Liberals on the Norman affair:

Under Conservative questioning in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeatedly refused to comment on the request from Mark Norman's legal team that he release sensitive cabinet documents related to the case. 1:32

The Conservatives spent Wednesday's Question Period tying their tongues in knots, over and over, asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a variation of the same question: Why will he not authorize the release of confidential cabinet documents requested by Norman's defence lawyers?

On Friday, the court was asked by lawyer Marie Henein to force the government to release a trove of secret and confidential cabinet documents, which only the prime minister has the authority to reveal.

Trudeau's answer was repeated ad nauseam: "It would be inappropriate for me to comment on this affair because it is before the courts."

It happened at least 24 times in the span of 39 minutes.

In another time, in another scandal, when the political benches were reversed, that kind of stonewalling was met with a jackhammer of facts, pointed barbs and sometimes dripping sarcasm.

What the Conservatives appeared to lack Wednesday was the prosecutorial style and perhaps the killer instinct of former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair who elevated the senate expense scandal — under Stephen Harper's government — to a higher political plane and kept it there.

The Crown alleges that Norman leaked the secret results of a November 2015 cabinet committee meeting about the fate of a $668 million deal to lease a supply for the navy to the media in order to embarrass the newly elected Liberal government into carrying on with the program.

Lawyers for the career military officer deny he was the source of the information.

Targeting Scott Brison

They claim the case against their client is politically motivated and that Brison, who was on the hot seat earlier in the week, politically interfered in the lease deal.

There is no shortage of questions to be asked about the decisions which led to the downfall of the former head of the navy; what sort of political influence may, or may not, have been at play; and how the Liberals have handled, or mishandled, the shipbuilding program at the heart of the Norman scandal.

"I suspect there is a lot more that can be dredged up," said Richard Cohen, an ex-army officer who served as former defence minister Peter MacKay's adviser.

The RCMP initiated the investigation and charged Norman with breach of trust because of leaks surrounding a cabinet decision

The story was originally published by CBC News. The journalist, James Cudmore, went to work for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan weeks after writing the story.

Cohen said there are accountability questions to be asked there.

He said he believes Brison's possible political connections with Irving Shipbuilding need to be explored in depth in order to assure the public that there is nothing to the accusations of Norman's lawyers.

"We, unfortunately, cannot take Scott Brison at his word and there should be a thorough public accounting," said Cohen.

And then, there is the notion floated by the defence lawyers in court filings that the RCMP is holding back on a charge involving a second leak related to the same case.

"The RCMP's investigation discovered that a government employee, Matthew Matchett, gave a lobbyist then working for Davie the classified Memorandum to Cabinet ("MC") and slide deck relating to the Liberal Government's November 19, 2015 iAOR Cabinet committee meeting," said the court filing, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News. None of the allegations in the disclosure motion have been proven in court.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison answers questions about his contacts with Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

CBC News tried to reach Matchett for comment on two occasions last weekend, but did not receive a response.

That has piqued the curiosity of the Conservatives.

"I think it is very disturbing that we have someone who is directly named now and related to the leaked documents. Why hasn't that person been charged and brought before the court? " said defence critic James Bezan.

"We've said right from the start Vice-Admiral Mark Norman is being used as a political scapegoat."

The RCMP say their overall investigation into the cabinet leaks of 2015 is still ongoing, and they — like the government—  cannot comment.

Amanda, Chris, Kathleen and Tim discuss the politics at play in the House of Commons over Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's trial. 9:53