OTTAWA — The Liberals used their majority on a House of Commons committee Thursday to block an opposition attempt to launch an inquiry into the failed prosecution of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.
Conservative and NDP members of the Commons defence committee forced a special meeting to debate a Tory motion that would have initiated an investigation into how the military's former second-in-command came to be prosecuted on breach-of-trust charges.
The case fell apart last week, when Crown prosecutors told the judge that new evidence they'd received from Norman's defence team had led them to conclude there was no reasonable chance of convicting him.
The admiral had been accused of leaking government secrets to Quebec's Davie shipyard, supposedly to help it nail down a $700-million contract for a navy supply ship that had been approved by the previous Conservative government and which the new Liberal government decided to review in 2015 before eventually finalizing it.
Conservatives on the committee charged that the case was politically motivated and an inquiry is needed to get to the bottom of it.
"There is more growing and growing evidence that Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau and the Liberal government politically interfered in this case and tried to destroy Vice-Admiral Mark Norman. They besmirched his reputation and good character," Conservative defence critic James Bezan told the committee.
"This whole case has been politically motivated since Day One."
But Liberal committee members countered that both the RCMP and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada have publicly affirmed that they operated completely independent of the government in conducting the investigation, deciding to prosecute Norman and then ultimately to stay the charges. They accused Conservatives of ignoring the facts and wasting the committee's time in a bid to tar the governing party just five months before an election.
"What seems politically motivated is that the Conservatives refuse to accept the fact that there was no political interference in this because it doesn't fit the narrative that they're trying to advance," said Kingston Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen.
"It's symptomatic of the fact that we are in an election year that we have seen an increase in partisan attacks from the official Opposition and that's the case because they have no substance on policy," added Toronto-area Liberal Sven Spengemann.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison attempted to find a compromise, reducing the Conservatives' lengthy list of proposed witnesses — including Trudeau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of defence staff, among others — to just one: Norman. He appealed to the Liberals to give Norman a chance to tell the story of his two-year ordeal at committee, the one place where he'd be protected by parliamentary privilege from any repercussions from speaking out.
As a serving member of the military, Norman is prohibited from saying anything critical of the government he serves, noted Conservative MP Erin O'Toole, a former member of the forces.
Spengemann said all committee members agree that Norman should have a chance to tell his story but he argued the committee was not the right forum.
"We should not insert him into a politically charged forum to make the case that he needs to make."
Spengemann suggested that it might be different if Norman were to request a chance to testify before the committee, rather than being invited by committee members with political agendas of their own.
Garrison's proposed compromise was defeated on a vote of 5-4, as was the original Conservative motion.
Denying Norman the right to testify at committee, makes it "very difficult to make Vice-Admiral Norman whole," and leaves him with "his reputation in tatters," Garrison said after the meeting.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press