OTTAWA â€” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has ruled out national security concerns following the sudden suspension last week of the military’s second-highest-ranking officer.
Government and military officials have been tight-lipped since Vice-Admiral Mark Norman was abruptly stripped of his responsibilities on Jan. 16, less than six months after becoming vice chief of defence staff.
The information vacuum has prompted an outcry from opposition critics, who say Canadians deserve to know if there was ever a potential risk to national security given media reports of an RCMP investigation.
While refusing to say why defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance suspended Norman, Sajjan said the case had nothing to do with security.
“This is not an issue of national security. But this is a decision that Gen. Vance needed to make and a decision that I wholeheartedly support in this matter,” he said Monday during a two-day Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary.
“This has nothing to do with national security.”
While security experts and allies will be reassured, Sajjan’s comments will do nothing to dispel the clouds that have gathered over the government’s $35-billion shipbuilding plan.
Norman was deeply involved in the strategy during the three years he served as commander of the Royal Canadian Navy before becoming the vice chief of defence staff in August.
That included charting a new course for the largest part of the shipbuilding strategy, replacing the navy’s destroyers and frigates, which had been buffeted with numerous delays and cost overruns.
The government officially launched a competition to choose a design in October, with the winner to be selected this coming summer and construction to begin in Halifax in the early 2020s.
Now defence companies are feverishly trying to find out whether Norman’s suspension has anything to do with the competition, including whether any competitors received an unfair advantage.
The government had gone to great lengths to insulate the warship project from criticism and court challenges through extensive industry consultations, the hiring of an independent fairness monitor and limiting what companies can say in public.
The initiatives were a direct response to the growing trend in recent years of military procurement projects being subjected to legal action, independent audits and the court of public opinion.
Any delay in the project could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, if not more, and leave the navy struggling to do its job with a smaller fleet until replacement vessels can be built.
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â€” With files from Lauren Krugel in Calgary
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press