Australian PM Scott Morrison 'not going to cop sledging' from France's Emmanuel Macron

Diplomatic rift between Australia, Europe and the US grows

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has attacked the credibility of French President Emmanuel Macron after a newspaper quoted a text message that suggested France anticipated “bad news” about a collapsed submarine deal.

The Australian newspaper cast doubt on President Joe Biden’s explanation to Mr Macron last week that the US leader thought the French had been informed long before the September announcement that their 90 billion Australian dollar (US$67.16bn) submarine deal would be scrapped.

Mr Macron this week accused Mr Morrison of lying to him at a Paris dinner in June about the fate of a five-year contract with the majority French state-owned Naval Group to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.

Australia cancelled that deal when it formed an alliance with the US and Britain to acquire a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines built with American technology.

Mr Morrison told Australian reporters who accompanied him to Glasgow, Scotland, for the UN climate conference that he made clear to Mr Macron at their dinner in June that conventional submarines would not meet Australia’s evolving strategic needs.

Two days before Mr Morrison, Mr Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the nuclear submarine deal, Mr Morrison attempted to phone Mr Macron with the news, but the French leader texted back saying he was not available to take a call, The Australian reported.

Mr Macron asked: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarine ambitions?” the newspaper reported Tuesday.

A journalist asked why Mr Morrison decided to leak the text message after Mr Macron accused him of lying, but the prime minister did not answer directly.

“I’m not going to indulge your editorial on it, but what I’ll simply say is this: We were contacted when we were trying to set up the … call and he made it pretty clear that he was concerned that this would be a phone call that could result in the decision of Australia not to proceed with the contract,” Mr Morrison said.

French officials said their government had been blindsided by the contract cancellation, which French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described as a “stab in the back”.

Mr Macron said this week the nuclear submarine deal was “very bad news for the credibility of Australia and very bad news for the trust that great partners can have with Australia”.

Mr Morrison said Mr Macron’s accusation of lying, which the prime minister denies, was a slur against Australia. Most Australian observers see it as a personal insult against Mr Morrison.

“I don’t wish to personalise this, there’s no element of that from my perspective,” Mr Morrison said.

“I must say that I think the statements that were made questioning Australia’s integrity and the slurs that have been placed on Australia, not me — I’ve got broad shoulders, I can deal with that — but those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging of Australia. I’m not going to cop that on behalf of Australians,” Mr Morrison said. Sledging is a cricketing term for abusive needling of opponents.

A 15-page document negotiated by the White House National Security Council with Australian and British officials detailed to the hour how the world would be told about the trilateral submarine deal, The Australian reported.

“Everything was timed and understood completely,” an unnamed Canberra source told the newspaper.

Former foreign minister Julie Bishop said the government’s apparent leaking of Macron’s text message would escalate bilateral tensions and could damage international trust in Australia.

“I’m concerned that the rest of the world will look at Australia and say: 'Nah. Can Australia be trusted on contracts not to leak private messages?'” she said.

Updated: November 2nd 2021, 11:20 AM