Simon Birmingham blames media for deepening Australia’s rift with France

A senior Morrison government minister has attempted to blame journalists for the escalation in the French-Australian diplomatic rift, questioning whether an interview with the French president was in the “national interest”.

Finance minister and frequent Morrison government spokesman Simon Birmingham queried whether it was “wise” for Australian journalists to have asked French president Emmanuel Macron questions over the aborted submarine deal and Scott Morrison’s conduct.

Macron, when asked if he thought Morrison had lied to him, replied “I don’t think, I know”.

The claim opened a fresh wound in the diplomatic relationship, with private text messages Macron had sent Morrison leaked to News Corp publications the following day, a move that infuriated the French even further.

Asked on ABC radio if leaking the private messages had been wise, Birmingham attempted to turn blame on the Australian media.

“People could ask questions as to whether it was wise for journalists to pressure the French president … in regards to the comments he made,” Birmingham said in an interview with ABC radio on Friday morning, when asked about the ongoing spat.

“I don’t want to get into any of those sorts of things.”

Challenged over describing Macron as being “pressured” into making comments, when he had simply answered questions, Birmingham said he was focused on the “bigger picture”.

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“I don’t think any of these things help us to be able to move forward, which is what I want to make sure we do in the relationship. We have to simply make forward that we get on, and make sure Aukus is a success, as I am sure it will be.”

In a later interview with Sky News, Birmingham said he believed the travelling Australian media focused too much on the French fallout, and not enough on Australia’s net zero by 2050 commitment, a pledge most developed nations had made years ago.

He then raised the issue of whether the impromptu press conference had been in the “national interest”.

“Each journalist can question themselves whether all they pursue is in the national interest or otherwise,” he said.

“But of course it’s their job to question, I get that.”

Asked if he was suggesting the Australian media had been unpatriotic in its questioning, Birmingham doubled down on his claims.

“…Journalists work to their ethics, their decisions,” he said.

“I’m not going to run commentary in relation to all of those, I think what is in Australia’s national interest, are the decisions our government has made and those decisions are not going to be mattering in decades to come about what was said or done this week. In the decades to come, it’s going to be about the fact that we have nuclear powered submarines in the water.”

Morrison refused to answer any more questions on the spat.

“We have moved on from that issue, that is what I said when I was in Dubai,” he said on Friday.

The attempt at blame shifting is just one more chapter in the saga which has been running since September, when the Aukus deal was announced. The French said they found out about the plans through media reports. Morrison insisted he had called Macron, later admitting he had not spoken directly to the French president, but had sent a message.

Macron has insisted the French had no warning the Morrison government was scrapping the $90bn contract, in favour of a strategic alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom, which includes the possibility of shared nuclear submarine technology. Morrison said he had been as transparent as possible.

In a bid to make amends, US president Joe Biden told Macron the announcement of the security and technology pact Aukus had been “clumsy”, adding he had been “under the impression that France had been informed long before, that the [French] deal was not going through”.

The Australian government has insisted it is time to “move on” and is moving to refocus on raising the benefits of the new alliance, including with Asean partners.

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