The Macron spat over Aukus submarines has taught world leaders a lot about Scott Morrison
As Scott Morrison flew towards Australia’s military base for operations in the Middle East on Wednesday, Jean-Pierre Thébault was using an appearance at the National Press Club in Canberra to continue France’s rolling excoriation of Australia’s conduct while dumping a multibillion-dollar submarine contract.
By the time Morrison touched down in the desert, the French ambassador had landed a potent extrapolation. If Scott Morrison’s operation was prepared to leak private text messages from world leaders to settle diplomatic scores, who could trust Australia?
“You don’t behave like this on personal exchanges of leaders,” Thébault said in Canberra. “Doing this also sends a very worrying signal for all heads of state. Beware, in Australia, there will be leaks, and what you say in confidence to your partners will eventually be used and weaponised against you.”
I doubt you’ve missed the saga of the text messages, but just in case – the morning after Emmanuel Macron told Australian journalists on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome that Morrison had lied to him during the fracas, one of the president’s private texts turned up in some Australian media outlets.
Two days before Morrison, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden terminated Australia’s contract with the French Naval Group to build diesel submarines in mid-September and replaced it with the Aukus pact, Macron had asked Morrison: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?”
This text was submitted as evidence that Macron’s outrage – the accusations about lying and Australia stabbing France in the back – were entirely confected, because the president knew all along the French contract was about to be dumped.
Actually, the message confirmed exactly the opposite. It shows Macron didn’t know what was happening two days before three leaders humiliated France with the Aukus announcement – which you’ll recall was livestreamed to the world.
So as ruthless exercises in domestic damage control go, this was a particularly wild one. Measured in terms of international relations, this was high-cost, low-efficiency.
Presumably, the score-settling reflected the fury of Australia’s prime minister after Macron launched his drive-by character assassination at the G20. Morrison was as angry as I have ever seen him on learning of Macron’s accusation.
But if it was an impulse, a lashing out, his revenge play, once unleashed, could not be rescinded.
Morrison has had plenty of opportunities to deny his office leaked the texts. He has not done so. He has also not expressed any remorse about it either.
Asked on the ground at the Al Minhad air base what the threshold had been for engaging in retributive conduct entirely outside diplomatic rules of engagement – was the trigger one world leader (Macron) accusing another one (Morrison) of lying – Morrison doubled down.
“Claims had been made and those claims were refuted,” the prime minister said.
Implicit in this is Macron was the one who shifted the goalposts by launching a personal attack. Morrison does have a point. There was nothing diplomatic in the French president’s observation at the G20. It was an extraordinary moment. Morrison responded with an extraordinary moment of his own.
But the rapid escalation has removed all the guard rails and conventions that normally restrain the apex predators of politics from engaging in unmasked aggression against their peers.
Morrison understood he was now in unchartered territory – which is why the prime minister declared an armistice during his brief stopover in the Middle East.
The prime minister thought now everybody had got various things off their chests, it was time to get past the muck. “Claims were made and claims were refuted, what is needed now is for us to move on – that is what is important the Australian people”.
What’s important, according to Morrison’s telling, was he, Scott Morrison, had made the right call by replacing French diesel powered submarines with nuclear ones.
He, Morrison, had “delivered an incredibly important capability to Australia to keep us safe and defend and protect Australia – that’s the most important thing, that is what is at issue here”.
“That is the thing that matters most to Australians – that we do everything we can to ensure the Australian defences are the best they possibly can be and the men and women who serve get the best. That’s what I was seeking to do and if others have other motives, others have other agendas, well that’s for them”.
The means justify the ends, in other words. Nothing else matters.
Morrison is still a relatively new player on the global stage, but his global counterparts have learned something important about Australia’s prime minister in this episode.
Morrison doesn’t need to be liked. He doesn’t need to be trusted – and in a domestic political context, Morrison is not trusted either by colleagues or by adversaries.
Morrison’s confidence in his own instincts and decisions is absolute.
He doesn’t need anyone to prop him up, or validate his choices. His emotional hinterland is outside of politics. In the prime ministership, he is an island. What’s important is the will to power, which for Morrison, takes form in a sense of relentless righteousness.
What is important to Morrison is whatever it takes to win the next political battle. International relations are only important insofar as they express themselves through the prism of domestic politics.
Morrison thinks he’s on a winner. Macron might be a casualty of that. Australian taxpayers might have to fork out billions to decouple from the Naval Group.
But if it’s a winning play, the costs don’t matter.