After the sub’s contract was canceled, an embarrassing meeting with Emmanuel Macron was likely, but no one expected the French president to call pants on fire when asked about the prime minister, writes the columnist Politics MICHELLE GRATTAN.
SCOTT Morrison weighed in on whether to go to the G20 and COP26. Hard-headed politicians might think that it would have been wiser to stay at home.
As important as it is internationally, the Glasgow conference is presented as a damage minimization mission for the Prime Minister. And we did not expect the G20 to bring in much that is useful to it.
Everyone knew that after the sub’s contract was canceled, an awkward meeting with Frenchman Emmanuel Macron was possible at one of these meetings.
But it’s safe to say that no one expected the French president to call the pants on fire when asked about the prime minister.
Morrison had claimed that the fractured relationship between Australia and France was starting to recover, albeit slowly.
He tried to highlight the progress by approaching Macron in an off-stage G20 moment, which was captured by his official photographer.
Morrison later told reporters, “He was talking to someone. I went up and just put my arm on his shoulder, said, g’day Emmanuel and can’t wait to catch up in the next few days.
“And he was happy to exchange those greetings, and we’ve known each other for quite some time. But you know, it’s just the process of being on the way home.
But the photo told a different story – the look in Macron’s eyes was anything but friendly.
Macron had nothing of the Morrison spin. When asked by Australian media a day later if he thought the Prime Minister had lied to him about the cancellation of the sub’s contract, he replied “I don’t think so, I know” .
The French were furious at the time of the sudden announcement of AUKUS and the way the subscription contract was canceled, they say without warning. Although their ambassador is now back in Canberra (and at the National Press Club on Wednesday), the anger obviously remains high.
In a phone conversation as Morrison was about to leave for Rome, Macron told him it was up to the Australian government to “come up with concrete actions” to redefine the bilateral relationship.
Morrison tends to speak of the French rather as if they are children deprived of a precious toy who are naturally “disappointed” but just need time to overcome their temper tantrum.
Admitting a mistake or showing contrition is not part of Morrison’s political repertoire. Instead, when caught or cornered, he denies, twirls, brags, changes the subject.
The frankness of the French president made these tactics more difficult to deploy. But Morrison always has excuses.
Macron caught off guard? The prime minister argues that the president should have realized, from their mid-year conversation in Paris, that the contract was likely to turn into a story.
“I was very clear that what was going to be provided to us was not going to meet our strategic interests,” he said at the weekend. Did he indicate that he would break the agreement on the submarines? No, but “We all understood what the doors of the contract were and what needed to be decided next. “
Did the French remain in the dark about Australia’s transition to new nuclear partners and submarines? Morrison says they couldn’t be kept in the secret surrounding AUKUS.
Joe Biden (who again apologized to Macron for the lack of communication) saying he didn’t know the French weren’t in the know much sooner? Apparently, the fault of US officials for not providing information to the president.
Morrison denied Macron’s claim that he lied – “that’s not true” – and by default stuck to his line that “I will always stand up for Australia’s interests”.
The French will be even more annoyed by the intervention of the interim Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who tried to downplay the whole affair.
“We didn’t steal an island. We did not degrade the Eiffel Tower, it was a contract. And contracts have terms and conditions, and one of those terms and conditions and offers is that you could get out of the contract.
When asked if things could have been managed better, Joyce replied: “Looking back, do you know tomorrow the Melbourne Cup is going to be? If only I could bet on last year’s one, damn it, I would win the money.
Another line of the government is that the French have elections coming up. Defense Minister Peter Dutton raised this issue last week. Whether or not that is a factor in Macron’s reaction, it only adds to the diplomatic split to get this card out.
On Monday in Glasgow, Morrison fought back with force, making Macron’s attack an attack on Australia. Morrison said he personally had broad shoulders but “I’m not going to cop sledging Australia”.
The government also released details of the days immediately preceding the announcement of the end of the contract. Knowing or suspecting what was to come, Macron refused to take a call from Morrison, who intended to inform him personally of the decision. He sent a message saying, “Should I expect good news or bad news for our joint submarine ambitions?”
How important will all of this be politically to Morrison?
Internationally, it is very bad for its reputation and that of Australia.
And indirectly, it has raised questions about the AUKUS submarine deal, which will not deliver any boats until around 2040, which increasingly appears to be a very worrying timeline.
Nationally, Labor took advantage of the liar’s line to bolster its argument that Morrison is misleading and worse.
Morrison will surely (and should) be embarrassed by what happened. But he’ll be more determined to ask what voters think, and he’ll likely count that on the home front he can neutralize Macron’s claim.
And it is by invoking “the national interest”, which is next to “national security.”
“I’m not going to put this [relationship with France] best interests of Australia’s national interest, and I think no Australian would expect me to […] to give up this interest for the good of another ”, he declared.
He will bet that in the focus groups, even though it may be seen as a new mess of the government, they will not be on Macron’s side.
And that’s where Morrison’s attention is focused, as he’s currently looking at everything through the electoral lens of next year.
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Ian Meikle, editor