Morrison spins as Paris burns

Our prime minister’s decision to humiliate the French President and then cast Emmanuel Macron’s response as a ‘sledge’ on all Australians is a ploy straight out of the Donald Trump playbook; but, Bruce Haigh writes, few would be surprised by Scott Morrison’s French escapade.

13 November 2021 | Bruce Haigh, Pearls and Irritations

What has been on display for the world to see is Scott Morrison’s character or lack of it. It is not the cancellation of the French submarine deal, although that is bad enough, it was the way it was done and the way the subsequent diplomatic crises has been handled.

Morrison humiliated French President Emmanuel Macron. Gallic sensitivities were ignored, crushed and trashed. Putting aside that Morrison is gauche, who the heck is advising him? Certainly not the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Morrison and whoever it is who has his ear have managed to seriously and substantially offend Chinese President Xi Jinping over unsubstantiated claims relating to the origin of Covid in Wuhan. You would have thought they might have learnt something but no, they went out of their way to offend Macron and the French and then in an act of bloody-minded defensiveness wound Morrison up, or at least did nothing to prevent him repeating calls for a Wuhan investigation at the G20, held some days ago in Rome.

Unlike America, China, Russia, France and Germany, Australia does not have power. It has influence, or it did until Morrison, Barnaby Joyce, Peter Dutton, Rupert Murdoch, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the Institute of Public Affairs began a process of shedding it. Influence takes a long time to build, years, and many people contribute to the sum total: artists, actors, athletes, academics, authors, diplomats, foreign aid, acts of decency and kindness. What Morrison has done over the past 12 months is to go on an influence spending spree like a problem gambler, culminating in an all-or-nothing throw of the dice on beating Macron’s allegation of lying, which he lost.

Australia has a rapidly depleting store of influence and its leader is seen to be morally bankrupt. He bet the farm and lost.

The recent round of betting started to go badly for Morrison when he didn’t have the courage to advise Macron the deal was off. Who has heard of a head of state not being able to get through to another unless, as with China, the other head of state doesn’t wish to be contacted? There were many channels available, from the Australian ambassador in Paris, to the French ambassador in Canberra, to members of Macron’s staff. There were also US and the UK diplomatic channels available to him if our own were not available. Morrison lied.

When faced with Macron’s anger, Biden chose to dump on Morrison, calling the process of notifying the French, clumsy. Morrison and advisers failed to read the room. Having secured his back with the US, Macron was free to give Morrison a serve. Calculating and smart, he waited.

When the opportunity presented, he struck, calling Morrison a liar. That was extraordinary. It is very rare for one head of state to call another a liar. In my lifetime I can’t recall it having occurred, not even during the Cold War.

Morrison’s reaction to being called a liar was the equivalent to taking a flame thrower to clean up an oil spill. He claimed Macron was aware of Australia’s intentions from hints dropped at dinner at the Elysée Palace earlier in the year. It was a poor and clumsy attempt to cast Macron as stupid.

The Liberal Party inferiority complex kicked in. How dare the French make a fool of their prime minister, no matter how easy that might be. Presumably after a great deal of thought, it was decided to leak a text message between the two leaders to a Murdoch publication intending to show Macron knew the game was up on the submarines. It showed no such thing. It indicated Macron wanted to know if everything was on track.

The leak indicated to the world not to trust Australia with sensitive and confidential information. Morrison doubled down on his lying and the world knew it. The man, and his advisers, seem not to understand the environment they are operating in. The Canberra merry-go-round was spinning so fast it was in danger of killing the kids.

It has not helped for a 15-page email to be leaked claiming to show the US and the UK were co-conspirators in a plan not to announce the scrapping of the submarine deal until AUKUS was announced. If the document is genuine, it confirms the utter duplicity in keeping France in the dark.

Then onto the scene came the French Ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thebault, giving a timely address to the National Press Club on Wednesday. His balanced presentation was measured and mature, a benchmark in diplomacy. Something seen all too rarely in Australian public life. He was at pains to point out that the submarine deal was not just a commercial arrangement, it was the foundation for a much deeper strategic relationship in a region where Australia and France have considerable shared interests.

He called the deceit and deception of the failure to take France into Australian confidence over the decision to scrap the submarine deal and the strategic alliance, “a stab in the back”. He stressed that media talk of cost blowouts was mischievous, pointing out that at Senate estimates last week Australian officials confirmed that costs had not blown out.

Thebault called the leaking of the text message ‘an unprecedented new low’ in trust between Australia and France. He said it sent a very worrying signal to all other heads of states that Australia was not to be trusted with confidential exchanges. That, “they will be eventually used and weaponised against you”.

He made the point that whilst France had no direct input into the decision making of the European Commission currently considering an EU free trade deal with Australia, the ease with which Australia tore up a major contract would be noted. The ambassador said an Australian promise or signature would be seen to be not worth much.

He was asked whether Macron was correct and justified in calling Morrison a liar and said, “Was the president lied to? Yes, he was. I have several examples.” And continued, “Maybe there is a difference between misleading and lying. But you know, among heads of states and governments, when you mislead a friend and an ally, you lie to him.”

He noted that Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Dutton held a meeting with their French counterparts underlining the importance of the deal just 17 days before the AUKUS announcement.

He was scornful and sceptical about the US submarine deal, noting the lead times and difficulties for Australia around maintaining and servicing nuclear-powered engines and loss of sovereignty.

Without spelling it out the ambassador identified that Australian defence and foreign policy is now in the hands of the US; they will not be inclined to work as closely with the French who have extensive military hardware in the region and expertise.

The point of Morrison being in Europe was to attend the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. His presentation to the conference was poor and to an empty venue. Morrison based his pitch on technology not yet invented. A week before the conference the government did not have a policy. The conference did not achieve its aims with Australia, China, Russia, India and Brazil insisting on the use of coal for the foreseeable future.

Morrison says there is no need for him to apologise to Macron who he accused of slurs against the people of Australia. In fact, it was Morrison and Morrison alone who was accused of deceit and lying by Macron. In one of his more cowardly attempts at deflection Morrison said, “I don’t wish to personalise this… But those slurs, I’m not going to cop sledging at Australia. I’m not going to cop that on behalf of Australians.” How pathetic. Morrison shirks responsibility and in doing so indicates a lack of emotional maturity. Australia has a problem and it is Morrison. He has not got the capacity for the job of prime minister. The longer he remains in the position the more damage he will cause.

This article was first published by Pearls and Irritations, Bruce Haigh is a former Australian diplomat and a political commentatorYou can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh