Scott Morrison a canary in a coalmine as awkward encounters with French president loom at

Just before Scott Morrison boarded his plane for Rome and the G20, Australia’s prime minister endured what sounds like a bracing conversation with the French president Emmanuel Macron.

Given that difficult call to the Élysée Palace was Morrison’s prelude to wheels up, when Australia’s prime minister finally alighted on the tarmac at Rome’s Fiumicino international airport after 28 hours in transit, the first questions he faced were about Macron.

The French readout of Thursday night’s call suggests Macron upbraided Morrison for the breach of trust associated with Australia cancelling a $90bn submarine contract. The French president also urged Morrison to adopt a more ambitious climate policy. That more ambitious policy should include a commitment “to cease production and consumption of coal at the national level and abroad”.

Having finally broken the ice with Macron, and facing the prospect of being very obviously in the president’s company both at the G20, starting on Saturday, and the Cop26 in Scotland starting Monday, Morrison chose to be sunny-side up. He also vaulted over a question about whether their tentative rapprochement was now sufficient to warrant a formal bilateral meeting at either event.

“I welcome the call,” Morrison told the travelling journalists straining to hear him over the engines of the jet aircraft touching down for the weekend summit.

“I very much appreciate that [Macron] reached out to have that personal call. We’ve started the way back and that’s a good thing. Australia and France have so many shared interests. I’m quite positive about it”.

But all relationship patch-ups have limits.

Obviously, Morrison had zero interest in heeding Macron’s call to phase out coal. Australia would be making a commitment of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 at Glasgow, but that was going to be the long and short of things.

“Our policy is very clear – we are not engaged in those mandates and bans – that’s not the Australian government’s policy and it won’t be the Australian government’s policy,” Morrison said.

“All countries are coming at this task from different places – their economies are different and as a global community, we’ve got to understand that. We’ll all get on this path – that’s what we are doing – but we’ve got to make our own path as well”.

Morrison was also asked about the views of Australia’s former finance minister Mathias Cormann – currently the secretary general of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Cormann is now calling for Australia to adopt a carbon price, which seems a little preposterous, given he was at the forefront of the Abbott government’s campaign to repeal the one Australia legislated during the 43rd parliament.

Morrison is clearly amused by this turn of events, and allowed his amusement to be obvious. The prime minister noted Cormann now represented “the broader views of all the various members of the OECD”.

Just in case anyone missed his point, Morrison added: “He’s not there representing Australia’s interests. That’s my job.

“It’s my job to represent Australia’s national interest, and I’m sure he has a deep understanding and appreciation of that”. That would be no on carbon pricing, then.

Morrison was also asked about the ultimate fate of Cop26, given the US president Joe Biden was struggling to land his ambitious climate commitments, and Xi Jinping, who leads the world’s biggest emitter, would not be attending the United Nations-led climate conference in person.

Was the summit now in danger of failing to deliver on the promise that seemed possible when world leaders, inspired by Biden bringing the US back into the Paris agreement, lined up earlier in the year to make more ambitious emissions reduction pledges for 2030?

Glasgow, Morrison said, was about “taking steps forward”. Morrison wished the British prime minister “all the best for this Cop26”.

“He chaired a magnificent G7-plus in Carbis Bay earlier this year, and Boris is really good at these events in trying to get people to focus on what’s important. I’m sure he’ll do everything he can to get the best possible outcome – one that respects the different views and staring points, and where people are in the journey.

“I think that is a very important point … Australian policies are designed for Australia and our way forward”.

Morrison has been under pressure to increase Australia’s Abbott-era emissions reduction pledge for 2030. The prime minister – who was rebuffed by the Nationals when he broached that prospect during the tortuous negotiations to land net zero – has made it clear that will not be happening.

With the Aukus submarine partnership upending Australia’s diplomatic relations with Paris, and causing ructions in the Indo-Pacific about its potential contribution to an escalating arms race, Morrison will open his G20 program with a meeting the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, on Saturday.

He will also meet Johnson ahead of the Glasgow summit, the Korean president, Moon Jae-in, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and the director general of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

According to a draft copy of the G20 communique obtained by the Reuters news agency, the leaders converging on Rome are also working towards a statement at the conclusion of the weekend summit that will reaffirm a commitment to “phase out and rationalise” fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 and to curb coal power.

The draft communique says leaders will “do their utmost” to avoid building new unabated coal plants. But it adds the phrase “taking national circumstances into account”.

Asked how Australia might respond to tougher language about the phasing out of fossil fuels, Morrison said: “Every time you come to these events there are always bits of paper that are flying around, and I’m sure the final communique will be worked through over the next few days.

“Australia’s policies on these issues are crystal clear and you can expect the Australian government – whether it is in Rome or Glasgow, myself as Australia’s prime minister will always be putting the national interest first, and ensuring they are the views that are represented here on behalf of Australia”.

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