Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
The truth about Vice-Admiral Mark Norman is finally coming out, with his breach-of-trust charge over allegedly leaking cabinet secrets to affect the leasing of a supply ship having been stayed. His trial has been spiked; the focus is now on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who reportedly initiated the request for an RCMP investigation in 2015, a highly unusual ask that he denies making. He also publicly predicted a trial, even before any charges were laid.
But this affair is about more than injustice and allegations of political interference. At its root, it is about a procurement system that left the Royal Canadian Navy unable to operate freely overseas – and that problem remains nearly as acute now as it was before.
A strong navy needs supply ships to enable warships to undertake long deployments without stopping in foreign ports or relying on allies. During an armed conflict, a supply ship can be the difference between victory and defeat. But Canada’s Navy lost both its supply ships in 2015 after a fire on one and serious corrosion on the other. All of a sudden, it could no longer form a task force – an independently deployable group of warships – despite this ability being central to its function as a blue-water navy, that is to say, a force that can operate across the deep and open oceans.
The Navy had foreseen a need for new supply ships before that, however. In 2004, it persuaded Paul Martin’s Liberal government to initiate a procurement process. But the projected costs quickly exceeded the assigned budget, and Stephen Harper’s Conservative government halted the process before restarting it one year later and then rolling it into the 2011 National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS). By 2015, it was apparent that the NSS was broken, and that the new supply ships would take a decade or more to arrive.
Enter Vice-Adm. Norman, appointed as commander of the Navy in 2013, who saw a solution to the intractable process: converting a second-hand container ship into a refuelling vessel.
However, this idea put the entire NSS at risk, and with it, entire careers. The NSS has grown into a complex institution with procedures, committees, personnel slots and budget lines involving three different government departments, and a workaround threatened overturning the cart. The conversion would also imperil decades of profits at Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax and Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver. In 2011, the two companies had been selected to build all of Canada’s large ships because Davie Shipbuilding in Lévis, Que., was under creditor protection at the time. But by 2015, Davie was back, with the facilities, workforce and experience needed to build large ships. It even had a container ship, the MV Asterix, ready for conversion.
Mr. Harper understood that urgent measures were needed. So he gave Vice-Adm. Norman the authority to deal directly with Davie and get the job done. It was an unusual move that sidelined the rest of the bureaucracy, but the prime minister had Vice-Adm. Norman’s back – that is, until he was no longer prime minister.
Mr. Trudeau became a particularly easy mark for senior civil servants, especially given their propensity to always try and take advantage of new governments. It might not have been too hard to wind Mr. Trudeau up about Vice-Adm. Norman’s dealings with Davie, which included allegedly “leaking” cabinet information concerning the new government’s doubts about the deal Mr. Harper had struck on MV Asterix.
We don’t know whether Mr. Trudeau’s behaviour amounted to political interference in the justice system. What we do know for the moment, though, is that Vice-Adm. Norman’s legal fight against the breach-of-trust charge came at a heavy handicap. Someone told the media that the RCMP were searching Vice-Adm. Norman’s home in 2017. The Department of National Defence refused Vice-Adm. Norman’s request for government assistance on legal fees, even though doing so is normal practice. Thousands of documents were withheld, some of which would have revealed what a former Conservative cabinet minister later confirmed: that Vice-Adm. Norman was reporting directly to Mr. Harper.
Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance was particularly unhelpful, suspending and then replacing Vice-Adm, Norman while publicly expressing a lack of confidence in him. He must go: At best, he failed to protect Vice-Adm. Norman, and at worst, he set him up.
But none of that deals with the actual problem at the core of this affair: The Navy has only one supply ship, the one that Vice-Adm. Norman secured. And this country’s geography demands supply ships on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as a third ship to stand in during maintenance and refits.
Seaspan will not be able to deliver new supply ships any time soon, even though it recently rearranged its construction schedule so as to start one but not both of the vessels before several Coast Guard builds. The firm ran into serious problems with the first ship built under the NSS, a Coast Guard fisheries science vessel, including faulty welds that had to be redone last year, and a damaging collision with a breakwater during a Seaspan-conducted trial earlier this year.
Fortunately, no full construction contract for the new supply ships has yet been signed. There is still time to cancel the planned second ship at Seaspan and to have Davie refit another container ship instead.
But this assumes rational decision-making, unaffected by interests and bureaucracy. Yes, Vice-Adm. Norman was vindicated – but don’t expect this government to change course.