Branded a ‘liar’ by the French, Scott Morrison’s slipperiness is now on show for the
Slipperiness is Scott Morrison’s defining characteristic. And it was never more on show than this week as he sold “the Australian Way” on climate to a sceptical crowd in Glasgow, while being openly branded a liar by France over submarines.
Take the stoush with Emmanuel Macron. When asked if Morrison had lied to him about dumping the $90bn Attack-class submarine contract, the French president said tartly: “I don’t think, I know.”
Morrison denied it, before an instant pivot to a baseless claim about the journalists.
“You were getting selfies with him.”
No, we weren’t, said an indignant hack.
“I must have been misinformed,” Morrison replied.
All ridiculously trivial, but not quite innocent. When cornered, the Australian prime minister breaks the glass and reaches for distraction.
Remember in March, when under pressure over the culture in parliament house, he suddenly turned on Sky News, warning about “glass houses”.
“Right now, you would be aware that in your own organisation there is a person who had had a complaint made against them for harassment of a woman in a women’s toilet,” thundered Morrison.
Not true, said Sky’s owners at News Corp. The prime minister issued a late night withdrawal. “The emotion of the moment is no excuse,” he said.
Morrison’s next reactions to Macron were also interesting.
“I have a lot of respect for your country,” Macron said, making plain he blamed Morrison specifically for what he contends was a lie. “A lot of respect and friendship for your people.”
Morrison’s response was to defend Australia’s honour, citing his own “broad shoulders”.
“I’m not going to cop sledging of Australia. I am not going to cop that on behalf of Australians.”
Then, in an extraordinary breach of normal protocols, a personal text message from the French president was selectively leaked to the press.
We now know that two days before the Aukus announcement, Macron texted Morrison to ask: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarine ambitions?”
This is being presented as evidence Macron knew the contract was about to be torn up.
But Morrison’s fuller explanation subverts that reading.
In mid-June, Morrison says he flew to Paris for dinner with Macron to state “candidly … that a conventional diesel-powered submarine was not going to meet Australia’s strategic requirements”.
But whatever he now says he said, what the French plainly heard was merely that there were problems with costs and delays.
On Morrison’s own account, “the French defence system swung into full action”, sending an admiral to Australia to respond “to the issues that I had raised at our dinner”.
Back then, Morrison publicly thanked the French president for “taking a very active role” in resolving the submarine issues.
Morrison’s own account shows French actions consistent with a partner trying to fix issues, rather than one who had been told its services were no longer required.
In essence, Morrison now says “they knew”. Macron says “he lied”. It appears the French knew less than they thought about Australia’s intentions, up to the virtual eve of the Aukus announcement.
“I think it’s clear from president macron’s statements yesterday that the level of offence is still very great,” Morrison conceded in a moment of clarity in Glasgow.
So Morrison slipped and slid through the French submarine contract until he was ready to announce his nuclear partnership with the US and UK. As he slipped and slid to the prime ministership in 2018, activating a tightly held plan to come through the pack.
He out-energised Bill Shorten to claim victory in 2019, in part by convincing pensioners that Labor’s franking credit reforms would leave them worse off.
The man who carried coal into parliament now has a net zero pamphlet that he believes can win back voters concerned about a warming planet. The electric vehicles which he claimed would destroy the Aussie weekend are now built into his emissions reduction goals.
The man who said cutting emissions would destroy the economy now argues the opposite. As emissions have fallen by 20% since 2005, our economy has grown by 45%, he says, “proving that economic growth is not at odds with emissions reduction”.
And we now have a new moral reason to export coal. We’re helping the world’s poor, he said in Rome.
“Don’t force up the cost,” he begged. “That is only going to hurt the people who can afford it least.”
If slipperiness defines him, it is also his primary political skill.
Franklin D Roosevelt’s biographer Kenneth Davis says the former US president had little time for politicians “who pursued their objectives in uncompromisingly straight lines, men who disdain(ed) cajolery and concealment and misdirection”.
As Turnbull, Dutton and now Macron can attest, those who have underestimated Morrison have been left clawing at the open air. Less chameleon than oiled seal, he has already slipped them by.