Andrew Coyne: Mark Norman’s treatment made even more outrageous by strong whiff of politics

Andrew Coyne: Mark Norman’s treatment made even more outrageous by strong whiff of politics
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Put yourself in Mark Norman’s shoes. You are the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, the second-highest post in the Canadian Armed Forces. The son of a military family, you are the former commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, decorated several times over a career of more than three decades.

Then, early one morning, three cars full of RCMP officers arrive at your door. They stay in your house for six hours, carting away computers, cellphones, files and personal effects, thousands of them, including family photos, even your wife’s medical records.

Hours later, you are summoned to meet your boss, Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance, who tells you he intends to relieve you of your duties. You are not told why. The suspension proceeds without any formal hearing or independent investigation. Before long, you are reading about it in the newspapers, again without explanation.

In the days that follow, you are subject to much speculation as to the reason: that you had committed some sort of sex crime, perhaps, or were a traitor to the country. Ten days later, the government issues a perfunctory statement that this was “not an issue of national security.” But in the meantime you hear the prime minister publicly back the decision, and weeks later you hear him declare that your case “will likely end up before the courts.”

And, more than a year later, that is where you remain: still suspended, still having been given no formal opportunity to defend yourself, and still not having been charged with anything, let alone tried. Nor is there any indication whether you ever will be.

The treatment of Vice-Admiral Norman would be outrageous enough in the case of an ordinary private citizen. It is particularly odious in the circumstances: the public interest any such high-profile case would naturally arouse; the damage to his reputation while it drags on; and most of all, the absence of any official explanation in all this time, either to Norman or the public, of why he was dismissed or what he is alleged to have done. The number two man responsible for our defence is made to disappear in a puff of smoke, and we are all just supposed to let it ride.

This would be disturbing enough, were there not a strong whiff of politics surrounding the whole affair. So far as the case against Norman has been made out — in the RCMP’s application for a warrant to search his home — it is that he is supposed to have leaked confidential cabinet discussions to a private defence contractor, which were then leaked to the press: information that proved acutely embarrassing to the Trudeau government.

The subject of those discussions: that perennial political cesspool, procurement. For decades the armed forces have had to make do with outmoded, inadequate or just plain missing equipment, while politicians, bureaucrats, contractors and lobbyists played their sordid games; jobs, votes, profits and power took precedence over the security of the country and the safety of military personnel.

The navy, in the present case, were without vitally needed supply ships, the old ones having rotted beyond repair. The company that was contracted to supply the new vessels, Vancouver-based Seaspan, would not be able to deliver them for years. Halifax-based Irving Shipbuilding was in no better position, having landed the lion’s share of the work under the National Shipbuilding Strategy.

So the former Conservative government, as a stopgap, arranged in August 2015 to lease a converted commercial ship from Davie Shipbuilding in Levis, Que. The decision was not without political considerations: the Davie yard is in the riding of a former Conservative cabinet minister, and an election was coming. But unlike virtually every other procurement decision of recent times, this one proved a success: work on the ship was completed on schedule last fall.

It very nearly did not happen, however. For hardly had the Liberals been elected when, in November 2015, the head of Irving, James D. Irving, sent a letter to several cabinet ministers complaining of not having been given a fair shot at the Davie contract. The Irving family is very rich, very powerful, and very close to several prominent Liberals.

Whether or not that had anything to do with it, within days of the letter’s arrival, a cabinet committee had recommended setting the decision aside, at least for a couple of months — and maybe, naval officials feared, much longer. Only after news of the decision leaked, amid the ensuing uproar in Quebec, was the government persuaded to recant, and allow the Davie contract to proceed.

Was Norman, then in command of the navy, the source of the leak? Who knows? That he was in correspondence, in emails obtained by the RCMP, with Davie executives, to whom he confided his despondence at the prospect of the project being derailed, proves nothing.

Neither was he the only possible source. The RCMP themselves have identified one other leaker in the public service. And the decision would have been known to dozens of other government officials.

And if it was Norman? Leaking official secrets is against the law, but it is hardly unusual in Ottawa, or in this government. No one has alleged that Norman had any motive but to prevent yet another procurement decision from being consumed by politics.

What is known is that the Trudeau government was livid at the leak — and that the RCMP, not notorious for its imperviousness to influence from on high, have pursued this case with unusual vigour, even placing Norman — again, the number two man in the military — under surveillance. All this, over a garden-variety leak?

There is much about this case that cries out for explanation. But meantime, a lingering injustice must be redressed. Charge Norman or clear him, but present the evidence against him and be damned.

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