Politics·Analysis

The Conservative connection that could be critical to Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's case

The Crown in Vice Adm. Mark Norman's case is going to great lengths to prevent the release of documents from the Harper government era - including Norman's own notes and documents.

What was Norman told to do by the Harper government regarding the $668M supply ship leasing plan?

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman makes his way to the courthouse in Ottawa, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On the surface, the arguments made this week in the criminal case against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman may have seemed as dull as dishwater.

Defence and Crown lawyers spent days arguing over who searched for what documents and where. Not exactly high drama, even for seasoned observers.

Look closer, however, and you might have seen a number of tantalizing, relevant threads emerging from the legal and political Gordian Knot of Norman's breach-of-trust trial.

The military's former second-in-command stands accused of leaking cabinet secrets to a now-former CBC journalist and an executive at the Quebec shipyard which leased the federal government a temporary supply ship for the navy.

In fact, most of the 12 alleged leaks cited by the Crown involve the Davie shipyard in Levis, Que.

The leasing deal was hammered out on the eve of the 2015 election by the former Conservative government and grudgingly approved by the Liberals weeks after they took power.

Norman's alleged leaks, according to the Crown, were intended to influence the governments of the day toward embracing the Davie lease deal.

This week, however, the court heard in more detail about how the RCMP have not interviewed a number of former Conservative ministers and staffers who were involved in this file — including former defence ministers Jason Kenney and Rob Nicholson and those who worked for them.

Jason Kenney was one of several defence ministers in the Harper era. (CBC)

More curious still is the fact that Crown and federal lawyers — the gatekeepers of the documents being sought by Norman's defence team — have mounted an extraordinary rearguard action to keep records related to the Conservative era under seal.

Barbara Mercier, the senior Crown who helmed the case this week, used these words to describe the majority of the defence requests for documents: "I have a very strong feeling that this has been a very large fishing expedition."

She suggested the hearing process "could go on and on" and that it was important for the judge to "keep things on track."

Those remarks earned Mercier a rebuke from Justice Heather Perkins-McVey — but they also inadvertently turned the spotlight on an intriguing aspect of the case:

What were Norman's marching orders from the former Conservative government related to the $668-million leased supply ship project?

And what would those sealed documents — the ones the Crown is trying so hard to protect — reveal about those orders?

This is tricky legal ground. The documents in question are, for all intents and purposes, cabinet secrets.

Weeks ago, former prime minister Stephen Harper appeared to clear the way by saying he had no objection to releasing those records.

The Crown, however, is now arguing the documents should be kept sealed under a provision known as "public interest immunity," which is a separate mechanism for protecting cabinet documents from public scrutiny.

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman is on trial for a breach of trust charge for allegedly leaking cabinet secrets surrounding a shipbuilding contract. 2:24

An end-run around the bureaucracy?

What's more, prosecutors are fighting to keep Norman's own notes and records — compiled when he was commander of the navy and later vice chief of the staff — from being disclosed to him and his lawyers.

Those documents could shed more light on the nature of the marching orders he was given by the previous government.

It's already a matter of public record that the Harper government went to extraordinary lengths to push the cargo ship lease through the system.

In order to make it happen, the Conservatives amended the regulations on sole-source contracts — something that, in all likelihood, waved a red flag for the Liberals who came after them.

.... the navy was working directly with PMO to try and make this happen.- PCO analyst Melissa Burke to the RCMP

There is also ample information in the court records, filed as part of the case, to suggest that the Harper government deliberately bypassed the federal public works bureaucracy, the Department of National Defence and even Norman's own direct commander, former chief of the defence staff Tom Lawson.

Privy Council Office analyst Melissa Burke told the RCMP — in a witness transcript included in documents released by the court late last year, which have not been entered in evidence nor tested in court — that the Prime Minister's Office under Harper "very much wanted this to go through."

She cited a briefing note that was signed by Norman only — and not by his boss.

"What that says to me is, the navy was working directly with PMO to try and make this happen," Burke said.

Putting the Norman case in context

Unsealing documents from the Conservative era would not affect the allegation that Norman leaked the results of a Liberal cabinet meeting to James Cudmore, a CBC journalist at the time, in November 2015.

It would, however, provide important context —and explain the Norman trial's baffling backstory.

There's one final twist to note that might be significant.

The Privy Council Office bureaucrat in charge of the search for government records testified this week they can't find some emails, texts and messages at National Defence — notably those of Conservative political staffers and former ministers.

The contents of dormant email accounts are supposed to be "wiped" after six months, said Patsy Bradley.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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