Confusion, bickering cloud Senate committee's planned Norman inquiry

OTTAWA — Confusion and partisan bickering are clouding a Senate committee's plan to examine the suspension and failed prosecution of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

Conservative Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais on Thursday accused Sen. Peter Harder, the government's representative in the upper chamber, of all but killing the study by refusing to let the Senate defence committee sit into the summer.

Dagenais sponsored a motion at the committee to study the circumstances that led to Norman's suspension and breach-of-trust charge, which prosecutors stayed last month, and report back to the Senate by Aug. 1.

Committee members had hoped to hear from Norman, who previously served as the military's second-in-command, as well as defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and others.

Speaking to The Canadian Press, Dagenais said Harder told Conservative whip Sen. Donald Plett on Tuesday that he would not agree to let the committee sit past the end of the current parliamentary session, which is wrapping up this week.

"Mr. Harder clarified the situation: No meeting during July. No extension," Dagenais said. He's one of two deputy chairs of the Senate defence committee along with Liberal Sen. Terry Mercer.

But Harder's office says he has yet to receive a written request from the committee for permission to sit past the end of the parliamentary session, which is required by the Senate's rules before an extension can be granted.

"We have not received a letter from the committee asking us to extend the sitting," said Harder spokesman Brian Laghi. "That letter is supposed to be signed by the chair of the committee, by the vice-chairs of the committee, and we don't have one.

"So asking us to approve an extension is kind of moot when the committee itself doesn't seem to be able to decide whether they want it extended or not."

The chair of the committee, Independent Sen. Gwen Boniface, says she signed such a letter to that effect on Wednesday and it is being sent around to Dagenais and Mercer for their signatures.

Dagenais nonetheless alleged Harder had already communicated his decision, saying: "He will receive the letter. But I have the answer, I received the answer from Harder: No more meetings on the Norman affair. Liberals protect Liberals."

Harder officially sits as a "non-affiliated" senator but he represents Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal cabinet there and shepherds government legislation. He's one of numerous senators now who aren't formally aligned with any party; the Conservatives consider most of them Liberals in all but name.

The Senate as a whole can also permit the committee to sit into the summer, regardless of what Harder says, but Dagenais said he will not pursue that path.

"If we go to the Senate chamber, Mr. Harder controls the majority of the senators, especially the majority of Independents appointed by Trudeau," he said. "The problem is we don't have the majority."

Norman was suspended as the military's second-in-command and charged with breach of trust last year for allegedly leaking government secrets to a Quebec shipyard to help it nail down a $700-million contract for a navy supply ship.

The deal had been approved by the previous Conservative government; the new Liberal government decided to review it after taking over in November 2015 but decided to carry on with it a short time later.

Crown prosecutors stayed the charge against Norman in early May, telling the judge that new evidence they'd received from Norman's defence team had led them to conclude there was no reasonable chance of a conviction.

Norman said at the time that he wanted to return to duty, but has yet to be given a formal position.

—Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter

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