John Ivison: The more we learn about the Mark Norman case, the uglier it looks for the Liberals

John Ivison: The more we learn about the Mark Norman case, the uglier it looks for the Liberals
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The Treasury Board president responded to questions about the case of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman by saying his role is to ensure there is due diligence in the expenditure of public funds.

When the Liberals came to power in the fall of 2015, they were confronted with the a sole-sourced contract for a $668-million naval supply ship, set into motion by the previous Conservative government. “We needed to perform some level of due diligence to ensure the proper expenditure of taxpayers’ funds,” he said. “That’s what I did — my job.”

But the tangled web of claims and counter-claims over the contract with Quebec-based Davie Shipyard has seen Norman, formerly the second-in-command of the Canadian Armed Forces, charged with criminal breach of trust.

And when Vice-Admiral Norman’s case comes to court next August, it is likely that Brison’s reputation will be dragged through the mire too.

Norman’s lawyer, Marie Henein, is seeking reams of documents to support the defence’s contention that Norman’s conduct was not contrary to the public good or inconsistent with the direction of the elected government.

If successful, Henein will dent Brison’s credibility. The defence is seeking documents that support the belief that Brison was behind the effort at an ad hoc cabinet meeting in November 2015 to terminate the Davie contract at the behest of the Irving family, which owns a competing shipyard in Halifax. Among the documents Henein is seeking is a record of communication between Brison’s office and James Irving, chief executive officer of Irving Shipbuilding.

Irving had complained in a letter to four cabinet ministers — Brison, finance minister Bill Morneau, then-procurement minister Judy Foote, and defence minister Harjit Sajjan — that his company’s supply ship proposals were not being properly examined. The defence application claims official advice to the Trudeau government was to sign the Davie contract, a recommendation defended by Foote and Sajjan. The defence’s position is that Brison was behind the effort to terminate the Davie contract because he is “close to the Irvings”. None of the allegations in the application have been proven in court. Irving, meanwhile, has consistently denied any allegation of political interference in the shipbuilding matter.

But the case for the defence, as laid out in the application filed in an Ottawa court last Friday, suggests the rules around cabinet confidences are “malleable and evolving …. they are a moveable yardstick.”

Reading Friday’s application, the lingering question is why charges of any kind have been laid against Norman. The same question formed after reading documents the RCMP filed to obtain a search warrant of Norman’s home.

Nobody is suggesting he obtained personal or “tangible” benefit or had criminal intent.

More ludicrous still: after Cudmore’s story suggesting the government was delaying the supply ship project appeared, the Privy Council office investigated and discovered six separate leaks to media and lobbyists relating to the cabinet committee; that at least 42 people in government knew in advance about the meeting; and that 73 people knew about the outcome.

Norman was clearly aware of the decision second- or third-hand by word of mouth but, as the defence maintains, there are no clear parameters on whether information that has been so widely disseminated can be classified as a cabinet confidence. The passing-on of such information has certainly never resulted in a criminal prosecution. When in 2005 Brison was himself at the centre of a scandal over cabinet confidences, he said that the information he had supplied was based on rumours and speculation that had been widely circulated around government.

A fascinating angle in the breach of trust charge is Crown’s contention the decision on the Davie supply ship should be the decision of the elected government, not the vice-chief of the defence staff. But Henein is seeking documents to show that Norman’s actions were at all times in support of elected officials — contrary to a “small but influential” band of senior public servants who were acting contrary to the will of the government of the day.

Those unnamed senior officials did not want the ship, the MV Asterix, to be completed because it was a commercial container ship that was converted to navy specifications. The success of such a project could undermine the National Shipbuilding Program, in which many careers and billions of dollars had been invested, even as it failed to deliver a supply ship.

The backbone of Norman’s defence is that, while senior officials who were supposed to be supporting ministers were not doing their jobs, he was doing his.

The documents made public by the RCMP filing last year revealed emails apparently from Norman to Fraser after the ad hoc committee meeting suggesting “the cynical view could be folks manipulating new govt to kill it (the Davie contract).”

The furor from Cudmore’s story persuaded Quebec’s then-premier, Philippe Couillard, to call Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to tell him the delay at Davie was unacceptable and was putting Quebec jobs at risk. When it was revealed there was an $89-million penalty clause in Davie’s contract, the Liberals relented and the project proceeded.

A more experienced government might not have launched any kind of inquiry, at least not until it knew what its findings might be. But once initiated, the process has proven unstoppable.

Now the Liberals face the daily drip of bad publicity on the eve of a general election, with no prospect of victory. The public is disengaged, it’s not dead. If the Crown wins the case, most people will deem Norman a martyr, guilty of little more than helping to deliver a much-needed ship to the navy on time and on budget.

If the Crown loses, the government will have to pay hefty compensation for having ruined a good man’s career — and the accusation of shady cronyism so often levelled against the Liberal Party will have been validated.

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