ANALYSIS

Scott Morrison-Emmanuel Macron 'lying' stoush damages Australia's diplomatic relations

French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this year. Picture: Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this year. Picture: Getty Images

Former prime minister Julia Gillard defined her time in the job by stating from the outset that foreign policy was not her "passion". Scott Morrison, years into the role, is showing it is not his either.

As Australia re-opens the door to the world and starts to shed the need for quarantine, another door is closing. In the world of diplomacy, thanks to the indelicate junking of the $90 billion French submarine deal, Australia has shrunk into itself.

The timing of it and the way it was done has caused considerable damage. Accusations of lying, sledging and clumsiness are being played out very publicly. Now, in the wake of French outrage with Australia's plans to acquire nuclear submarines built by the United States or the United Kingdom as part of the new AUKUS defence pact, there are strategically leaked text messages between the Prime Minister and French President Emmanuel Macron. Oh merde!

We can get to the substance of the messages later, but the leaking of an international exchange to a local newspaper does not bode well for any healing of relationships.

Mr Morrison is digging in. And he is digging in while still on the international stage where he still has something to prove at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.

The sharp stick that the President used was the phrase, "I don't think, I know" when asked by Australian journalists if the Australian leader lied to him.

"I think this is detrimental to the reputation of your country and your Prime Minister," Mr Macron said.

Mr Morrison poked back and bundled Mr Macron's criticisms of him only as "slurs that have been placed on Australia, not me."

"I've got broad shoulders. I can deal with that. But those slurs, I'm not going to cop sledging at Australia. I'm not going to cop that on behalf of Australians," he told the trailing Australian press pack.

It is a curious tactic. It is a shifting and stirring of the sands and it seems unnecessary.

After accusing Mr Macron of playing to a domestic audience with an election not far away, the Prime Minister is doing exactly the same thing.

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The leaked text messages between the two leaders, which found their way into the News Corp newspapers, appear to show Mr Macron unaware of Australia's imminent contract cancellation just two days before it was announced.

Mr Morrison outlined with reporters, at length and detail, his side of the controversy in the wake of Mr Macron's "I don't think, I know" lying claim, but the Prime Minister would not confirm the leak of his messages.

But the publishing of the messages is being touted by "sources" as Mr Macron being aware the Naval Group contract was about to be torn up, with Mr Macron asking, "Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?"

The Prime Minister was trying to organise a phone call with the President, but it did not happen. Two days later, AUKUS was announced.

Mr Morrison explained the difficulties of changing multi-billion submarine deals mid-stream. It would have been a miracle if everyone ended up thrilled with the result.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton said on Tuesday there was a "no-surprises strategy" in operation between Australia, the US and UK as they struck the AUKUS deal.

"The United States and the United Kingdom were kept informed of our every move, and similarly us of theirs, and the suggestion that we went outside of that or there was some other process, is of course just plain wrong," he told Sydney radio 2GB.

"Of course, you know, we had factored in all along that the French were going to be upset about losing a contract of this size.

"So you understand that the emotion within France and by the French President, but to accuse the Prime Minister of lying is just a bridge too far and completely absurd on all of the facts that I've seen and I think the sooner we move on from this the better."

Mr Morrison said he tried to make it clear to the President in June at a dinner at the Élysée Palace, but could not state at that time that Australia was definitely heading elsewhere - or outline the new trilateral grouping of AUKUS.

"At that point I made it very clear that a conventional diesel-powered submarine was not going to meet Australia's strategic requirements. We discussed that candidly," he claimed.

What is left is a big political problem. Australia wants to appear open for business and the French President just put a closed sign on the door. And all the emerging talk about trust in the lead up to the next, not too far away election might just have to be rested for a while.

This story Oh merde! PM digs in over 'slurs' and 'lies' in French subs drama first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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