Trudeau changes tune on Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, refuses to comment on documents

Click to play video: 'Conservatives demand release of documents on Vice-Admiral Norman court case'
Conservatives demand release of documents on Vice-Admiral Norman court case
WATCH: Conservatives demand release of documents on Vice-Admiral Norman court case – Oct 17, 2018

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau angered Conservatives in Wednesday’s question period by repeatedly refusing to explain why his government isn’t releasing documents requested by the legal counsel of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

Lawyers for Norman, who was charged in March with breach of trust for allegedly leaking government secrets to Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding, said in a recent court filing that the government had “cherry-picked” what information to disclose.

Trudeau’s reticence to address the status of the documents — which officials have deemed cabinet secrets, but which Norman’s lawyers say they need to defend him in court — was a stark contrast to his commentary on the case last April, when he said the investigation into the military’s second-highest ranked officer would “inevitably” lead to “court processes.”

READ MORE: Controversial case of suspended vice-admiral will ‘inevitably’ go to court, says Trudeau

Conservatives began question period by delving straight into the Norman controversy, with party leader Andrew Scheer asking Trudeau why he wouldn’t release the documents when he was previously willing to comment on the case.

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“It wasn’t inappropriate for the prime minister to comment to the media before the trial even began,” Scheer said sarcastically. “He predicted that Vice-Admiral Norman would be charged and that this would be sorted out in court… all we’re asking for now is an explanation as to why he won’t release documents that would give [Norman] a fair trial.”

Trudeau’s response was brief: “As he should well know, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on this affair because it is before the courts.”

Scheer then asked if Trudeau would sanction the release of documents that could potentially prove or disprove Norman’s defence, but the prime minister simply repeated his previous response, nearly word-for-word.

The Opposition leader then pressed the matter further, asking, “What is he trying to hide?”

Again, Trudeau simply repeated his stock response.

WATCH: Trudeau not releasing documents regarding Vice-Admiral case ‘reeks of a cover-up,’ say Conservatives

Click to play video: 'Trudeau not releasing documents regarding Vice-Admiral case ‘reeks of a cover-up’: Conservatives'
Trudeau not releasing documents regarding Vice-Admiral case ‘reeks of a cover-up’: Conservatives

Other Conservatives also went on the attack on the issue, with MP Mark Strahl saying that Trudeau’s silence “reeks of a cover-up, James Bezan saying the prime minister “tainted the case” with his comments, and Erin O’Toole branding Trudeau’s response — or lack of it — “shameful.”

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However, the prime minister refused to budge, saying the Conservatives were only bringing up the Norman trial because “they’re running out of things to talk about.”

Norman, who remains suspended with pay, has denied any wrongdoing and his seven-week trial is currently set to begin in August 2019 and run through much of next year’s federal election.

READ MORE: Vice-Adm. Mark Norman to appear for 1st court date over alleged 2015 shipbuilding leak

His lawyers’ request for the documents could put the government in a real bind, said one legal expert, since if the court agrees with Norman’s lawyers, officials would be forced to either produce the sensitive documents – or refuse and risk having the case thrown out.

The disclosure of evidence is a key tenet of Canada’s legal system, and courts can normally compel the release of such information, but the Canada Evidence Act lets the government refuse such requests for cabinet confidences, said University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese.

If that happens, he said, “there’s a good chance the court would turn around and say: ‘The defence doesn’t have access to documents that I have decided are likely relevant. This is no longer a fair trial. Case dismissed.’

Among the documents that Norman’s lawyers want are a variety of briefing notes, reports, emails and other records for ministers and senior officials as well as the results of investigations into six other alleged leaks relating to the supply-ship project.

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— With files from The Canadian Press

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