Macron took aim at Scott Morrison over the submarine fracas – and he did not miss |
It wasn’t clear that Emmanuel Macron would stop when encircled by a small party of Australian journalists after he had finished his press conference at the conclusion of the G20 summit in Rome. His minders clearly wanted their waylaid boss to keep on walking.
But the French president chose to stop and entertain questions. Having been invited politely to reflect on the nuclear submarine fracas, Macron took aim at Scott Morrison, and he did not miss.
Morrison has been shadowed by the Aukus controversy ever since his departure from Australia last Thursday. Macron’s opening submarine sortie came in a phone call just before the prime minister boarded his plane for the G20.
Diplomatic relations between Canberra and Paris have been in the deep freeze since Morrison dumped the $90bn contract with the French Naval Group, and whipped Aukus out of his back pocket.
Facing the prospect of having to front two international summits with Macron, where any obvious snub would grab headlines, Morrison attempted to repair the relationship by reaching out to the Élysée Palace. Macron consented to a phone call.
During the call last Thursday, Macron told Morrison that ditching the submarine contract had broken “the relationship of trust”. Canberra needed to propose “tangible actions” to heal the rift. Macron also hoped Morrison had packed lashings of ambition before arriving at the G20 and the Cop26 in Glasgow. Australia, he said, needed “to cease production and consumption of coal at the national level and abroad”.
We know all this because Macron got his official record of the conversation out first. In the time-honoured diplomatic game of duelling readouts, first movers always establish the terms of any ensuing narrative.
Macron’s version was splashed prominently across Australian news outlets while Morrison was winging his way slowly north. Journalists travelling on the plane with Morrison were not given a heads-up. We found out when the news of the call broke. The tenor of the call established that any rapprochement between Paris and Canberra would be gritted teeth at best.
By the time Morrison touched down in Rome, the “optics” got worse.
On the evening before the G20, Joe Biden (another one of the Aukus traitors) embarked on his own performative rapprochement with Macron. During a tête-à-tête at France’s Vatican embassy in Rome, Biden acknowledged the handling of the submarine fracas had been “clumsy”.
Biden wasn’t done. He told his French counterpart he’d been “under the impression” that France had been informed long before Aukus (surprise!) day that the contract was going to be terminated.
It was possible Biden was rebuking his own senior staff.
Morrison insists the Biden administration was kept informed of all the twists and turns in Australia’s long conversation with France about the troubled Naval Group contract while the secret Aukus planning was under way. The Canberra version of this story is senior White House aides failed to manage up.
But it was also possible Biden had just landed a very public blow on Morrison. With Angela Merkel, the political titan of Europe, bowing out of public life, Macron is very important to Biden. If Macron wanted a scalp to restore dented French national pride perhaps it better be that “fellow from down under”.
Thank you very much pal.
Being berated in Rome wasn’t on Morrison’s G20 plan. The plan was to raise the alarm about people being nasty on Facebook, and block any inconvenient language presaging a phase-out of coal in the final communique.
But instead of Roman Holiday, Morrison found himself on the receiving end of a Malachi Crunch from Biden and Macron. Things got even worse on Sunday night when Macron accused Morrison of lying during his impromptu chat with Australian journalists – an extraordinary charge in diplomatic terms.
The obvious question to ask – is Macron’s lying charge fair?
Morrison was ropable when he learned of the accusation. He says he didn’t lie. Morrison says he gave Macron a significant hint in June that the contract was in strife. The prime minister says he wasn’t in a position to be any more candid because the Aukus pact needed to be secret squirrel right up until the time Biden, Boris Johnson and Morrison decided to fess up.
This rings true. There aren’t many countries in the world that would dare pre-empt an American national security announcement if the US expressly forbade its disclosure. Morrison was in a difficult position.
But it’s fair to say Morrison put himself in a difficult position by choosing to pursue US nuclear-powered submarines while still contracted to a French alternative. Aukus wasn’t foisted on him. He wasn’t a victim. This was an opportunity Morrison hunted down for Australia.
Another question to ask, apart from what on earth Morrison can do to make things right, is how this fracas reads domestically.
Morrison is very obviously trying to insulate himself from reputational damage by declaring he has prioritised Australia’s national security ahead of French national pride. If France must be humiliated in the process of keeping Australians safe – then bring on the humiliation. Who is that uppity Macron to poke an Australian prime minister in the chest? Nationalist parables like this one write themselves.
Morrison clearly believes he has a viable means of discounting Macron’s very undiplomatic attack on his character and integrity, and perhaps that will work.
But the risk for Morrison is Macron’s precision demolition plays right into pre-existing voter unease that Australia’s prime minister doesn’t always play it straight, and very rarely cops it sweet.