How the Liberals spent the week blaming everyone else for the Mark Norman fiasco

The fallout from Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's criminal case has seen the Trudeau Liberals deploy the popular political tactic of throwing people under the bus.

Who was at fault? According to the government, nobody — or maybe everybody

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman walks with his lawyers Marie Henein (right) and Christine Mainville as they leave court in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

There's a time-honoured tradition in Ottawa: when things go wrong — horribly wrong — somebody gets thrown under the bus.

The collapse of the criminal case against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman saw that custom accelerated at breakneck speed this week as the Liberal government sought to put as much distance as possible between itself and the failed prosecution.

The most prominent person among those tossed beneath the wheels is the country's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, who — according to both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan — was the one who decided to suspend Norman in the first place.

"The chief of defence staff has full responsibility for the administration and command of the Canadian Armed Forces," Trudeau told the Commons during question period this week.

Sajjan, who served under Vance in Afghanistan, also tried to steer blame toward the chief of the defence staff during marathon questioning Wednesday night related to his department's budget.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan: 'I have faith in the chief of defence staff to carry out his duties.' (The Canadian Press)

"When the decision [to suspend Norman] was made, I supported it," the minister said, citing the chief's authority under the National Defence Act. "I have faith in the chief of defence staff to carry out his duties."

Those remarks made it sound as though the minister was an innocent bystander who had no authority to question or challenge Vance's decision.

That's pretty ironic, since senior government officials have for months framed the prosecution of Norman, on allegations of leaking cabinet information, as an effort to reinforce civilian control over the military.

The commander of the navy, they argued, should never be allowed to usurp the will of the elected government of the day by agitating for a leased supply ship.

The notion that military men should be "limited to request[ing] and advising on needs" is seeded throughout the Crown's factum in the Norman case, filed last December.

Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance participates in an interview with The Canadian Press in his office in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

On Friday, Vance insisted that the decision to suspend Norman was his alone and was made without political direction or interference.

And beyond informing Sajjan and Trudeau of the RCMP investigation, the defence chief said, "I have never, ever spoken to anybody political about this, beyond that, ever. Period."

There are some in Ottawa who will interpret that statement as Vance taking a bullet for the Liberal government — but the law does invest him with the authority to act.

Whether he should have acted so swiftly — whether he should have demanded to see more information from the RCMP in advance — is a question observers have been asking from the outset. But the calls have become louder since the Crown conceded it did not have all of the evidence when it decided to lay a charge of breach-of-trust against Norman.

"The main point to take away from all of this," said retired lieutenant-colonel Rory Fowler, a former military lawyer now in private practice, "is that the CDS was not obliged to do what he did and, quite frankly, the decision had nothing to do with the Code of Service discipline. His decision was administrative in nature."

Others being tossed under the bus this week include harried (and occasionally befuddled) civil servants whose slow, deliberate combing of federal government documents subpoenaed by the defence turned the court process into an extraordinary exercise in frustration.

Buckets of black ink were poured over the various records through redaction, apparently in the interest of preserving cabinet secrecy or solicitor-client privilege.

Justice Minister David Lametti: 'We met all our obligations.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The decision to redact information was made by public servants in this case and overseen by the court," said Justice Minister David Lametti. "We met all our obligations."

What the Liberals failed to explain was why Conservative-era cabinet documents — which could have helped to exonerate Norman early on — were not in the hands of either the RCMP or the Crown.

The Conservatives are using that fact, among others, as the foundation for their call for a public inquiry.

Not even the Ontario government escaped the bus this week. In what was one of the more creative deflections, justice officials and (eventually) Liberal MPs argued that it wasn't the federal government that actually prosecuted Norman.

Rather, the director of public prosecutions was acting in the name of the Attorney General of Ontario because the case was grinding through provincial court system.

Given all their verbal and mental gymnastics this week, Liberal MPs have shown little curiosity about how they got into this mess in the first place — and a fierce desire to get far away from it.

Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen insisted asking those questions would not be within the purview of parliamentarians and would amount to "re-litigating" decisions made by the Crown and the RCMP.

Maybe in quieter moments they'll reflect on why the former Conservative government felt compelled to hotwire the military procurement system in an exceptional deal with the Davie Shipyard, in Lévis, Que., to lease a supply ship for the navy.

And why former ministers failed to speak to the RCMP after Norman was charged.

"The deal has literally no comparison," said Dave Perry, a defence analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. "Procurement regulations were changed to make it go ahead the way it did. A letter of intent signed immediately prior to the election period. Everything about this was atypical."

And perhaps, one day, the Liberals might ask why one of the country's most senior and decorated naval commanders staked his career on that project.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, 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.