How Scott Morrison’s Cop26 climate show was derailed by Emmanuel Macron and the submarine
Scott Morrison’s appearance at the G20 and Cop26 was supposed to be about consolidating the Coalition’s climate pivot before the next election. But the French president, Emmanuel Macron, had other ideas.
Political editor Katharine Murphy travelled with Morrison to Rome and Glasgow this week. Here is how an extraordinary week unfolded behind the scenes.
Prologue: Canberra to Darwin
Scott Morrison is late. This isn’t unusual, so we think nothing of it. It’s been a gruelling couple of weeks in parliament as the Nationals have been coaxed, and then corralled, into supporting a net zero target.
It’s Thursday evening and journalists have been pre-positioned at the RAAF terminal Fairbairn. While we wait, we speculate about how things might go when Morrison has to share a stage with Macron at the G20 and the Cop26 in Glasgow. Will it be rapprochement, or rage? Morrison’s decision to dump a $90bn contract with France’s Naval Group has caused a diplomatic ruckus.
The word around Canberra is Morrison has been trying to line up a bilateral meeting with Macron in Rome. A quick grip-and-grin would allow the prime minister to claim a reset, get us off his back, and allow a focus on his climate pivot which has been in the works since Joe Biden won the US election. When we were briefed about what to expect during the mini summit season, journalists asked whether there was a bilateral meeting planned. Senior officials were cagey.
Morrison lobs more than 30 minutes behind schedule. He appears briefly in our cabin to acknowledge our presence. The prime minister looks spent. He says he’s tired. It’s clear he won’t be lingering. He excuses himself and heads for his suite at the front of the plane. About halfway into the first leg, my colleague Daniel Hurst messages that something new is coming from the Élysée Palace.
There has been a call between Morrison and Macron. A ripple of irritation flows through the journalists’ cabin. We are in an aircraft with Morrison and a small phalanx of advisers. We saw the prime minister just after he had hung up. This is why he’s run late. Nobody mentioned this call. Not even a cryptic hint. Macron has evidently chewed a chunk out of Morrison. According to the French readout, ditching the submarine contract had broken “the relationship of trust”, and Canberra needed to propose “tangible actions” to heal the rift.
Macron’s account of the conversation sets the tone. It takes a period of time for an Australian readout to be produced, and when it comes, it says next to nothing.
The plane descends into Darwin. Given this is the diplomatic equivalent of shots fired, there’s a lunge for laptops. The TV reporters swap their hoodies for shirts and ties for pieces to camera. We tumble out in the warm soup of Darwin’s night air. Some crouch around power points in an empty terminal to file or add paragraphs. Morrison is nowhere to be seen. The TV correspondents position on the tarmac, look down the barrel of the camera, and will themselves not to sweat.
Act one: Rome
Jet engines are idling on the tarmac at Leonardo da Vinci international airport. Leaders and their entourages are arriving in waves for the G20. After 28 hours in the air, we’ve landed in gentle, autumnal sunshine. Morrison alights and strides towards us.
Q: Just on the phone call with president Macron – what did you make of the timing … It sounded like a tense call … Morrison is, naturally, sunny side up. He appreciates Macron finding the time to reach out. He says relations between Australia and France are on the way back. Q: Prime minister, you’ll see president Macron both at G20 and Cop. Do you envisage having a bilateral with him or a pull aside or something formal or informal engagement? [Crickets].
Into the bus. The motorcade speeds into the Roman capital, scattering a succession of tiny Fiats. Rather than easing around the potholes that scar the roads, our driver accelerates into them, sending us flying. Before long, Rome bustles around us. Retail and hospitality open. Hardly anyone wears a mask. Scooters weave through the streets, horns blaring. Fresh from months of lockdown in Canberra, this explosion of Covid-normal is startling. A number of us are transfixed by pre-pandemic life on display out the window.
Tick tock. We are always on the clock and TV reporters always need a new backdrop. The Colosseum is suggested. Many of us trail along to get some air by doing slow laps of the perimeter. When I get back to the hotel, I flick on the BBC. There is Joe Biden. The president of the United States has landed in Rome and he’s sitting beside Macron at France’s Vatican embassy. As I unpack and charge my devices, I log that Biden has come to Macron. The penitent cue sparks interest, so I sit and watch.
Biden is an unusually empathetic character, and one of the building blocks of empathy is humility. But America is rarely penitent. Possibly I’m overegging the penitence. Perhaps it was convenience, because Biden has also called on Pope Francis. But America is managing its own diplomatic rupture with Macron because the US is one of the partners in the Aukus pact that superseded the French submarines. Macron is angry with all the Aukus partners.
In Rome, Biden tells Macron he was “under the impression” that France knew Australia was going to back out of the Naval Group contract. He also acknowledges the whole issue has been handled in “clumsy” fashion. This is performative self-criticism. But there’s also blame shifting. The clear implication is Australia has lacked sophistication. This is not good for Morrison.
I wonder what the prime minister is doing right at the moment. Is he also hanging up shirts in his hotel suite, hunting for dental floss, while watching Biden throw him under a bus?
Act two: G20
I’m watching Macron through a window. We are in the final stretch of the G20. Australian journalists have been pre-positioned for a press conference with Morrison. Tonight, we will decamp for Glasgow and the Cop26 summit. The G20 has just issued a communique where the climate change language has been watered down – in part because of Australian lobbying against commitments to phase out fossil fuels. It’s not a great sign.
Morrison hasn’t arrived yet, but Macron’s voice is wafting in our direction. I follow the sound until I get a visual. The French president is compact, but he knows how to use his body as punctuation, or emphasis. The gestures are calculated and precise. David Crowe, chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, has wandered further up the corridor and ducked into the back of the press room. A couple of television colleagues amble over as well: Pablo Vinales from SBS and Andrew Probyn from the ABC. It seems possible we might be able to grab Macron as he departs his press room.
This is a long shot, but for once, everything breaks our way. The French president exits when our small group has washed up in the perfect position to intercept him. Probyn, who has a Lancashire lilt, and a relentless derring-do manner, introduces himself politely as an Australian journalist. Q: Might we have a word? Macron smiles and stops.
The president’s security detail looks not entirely comfortable, but not alarmed. A Macron press aide trailing several metres behind her boss spots the impromptu gaggle, glowers and jogs to catch up. But a relaxed Macron is already lobbing grenades. Out the corner of my eye, I notice another SMH-Age correspondent, Bevan Shields, orbiting the perimeter. Vinales has his iPhone out, filming.
Macron says he harbours friendship and respect for Australia and Australians. But respect requires reciprocity. “I just say when we have respect, you have to be true and you have to behave in line and consistent with this value.” The back and forth continues. Shields is now positioned directly in front of Macron. He asks the president whether he thinks Morrison lied to him during the submarine fracas? The president does not hesitate. “I don’t think, I know,” he says.
Having delivered his mic drop, Macron’s entourage sweeps on. The directness of the accusation is astonishing. It takes a minute or two to process. Earlier in the day, Morrison approached Macron informally in the leaders lounge for a handshake that the prime minister’s official photographer captured and disseminated. Macron looked less than…