Scott Morrison standing firm as France accuses Australia of adultery over sub snub

ANALYSIS: While the fallout continues from Australia's decision to ditch the French submarine deal for a new defence pact with the US and UK, the true cost in relationships and dollars is yet to be revealed.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a joint press conference before a working dinner in Paris, June 15, 2021.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a joint press conference before a working dinner in Paris, June 15, 2021. Source: AP

On the streets of Paris, Australia’s decision to tear up the submarine deal and ink a new agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom is being likened to a marriage where the partner reveals at the eleventh hour they have been "cheating with a mistress".

That is how a French senior official has put it, arguing it's hard to underplay the level of anger in France.

That is a sentiment reflected in the outgoing French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault’s accusation of "treason in the making".

The implications of the new AUKUS alliance and Australia's move to secure a deal for nuclear-powered submarines are said to be far-reaching.

After making the extraordinary decision to recall the American and Australian Ambassadors, the US ambassador will now return to Washington.

But there is no clarity about when the country's ambassador to Australia could be back in Canberra. That will be a decision for President Emmanuel Macron.

French attempt to fight 'national interest' claims

Prime Minister Scott Morrison argues he was upfront about Australia’s reservations as the French program was facing cost blowouts and delays. 

On Thursday, Mr Morrison was explicit.

"We had communicated. As I've said on many occasions, we believe that a conventional submarine was not going to meet our requirements," he told reporters in Washington.

"We discussed that issue with the French over several months, and I was very clear that we would be making a decision based on Australia's national security interests."

But a French senior official claims the country was subject to a relentless media-driven "smear campaign" in Australia over the submarine program.

He told SBS News he wants to know why the French nuclear-powered submarine design was not good enough.

The Prime Minister maintains the life of the nuclear aspect of the American submarines was much longer and required much less servicing.

Did Australia steal submarine secrets? 

This dispute reaches far deeper than hardware. The same senior French official quoted earlier maintains Australia has been privy to French sovereign military and security intelligence since 2016, when the submarine process started.

The Prime Minister describes this suggestion Australia has stolen any French intellectual property as "nonsense".

"We were working in good faith in a contract, working together, paying our bills, too, by the way," he told SBS World News in Washington.

"And over the course of paying our bills in that contract and working, a lot of our people developed great skills. That's great for Australia."

The French President Emmanuel Macron had painted the submarine deal as just one tangible component of a larger 50-year partnership stretching to the overall stability in the Into-Pacific region, which is home to 2 million French citizens.

Scott Morrison meets with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Source: AFP

While the French President is screening Australia’s calls, he has spoken to US President Joe Biden.

They delivered a joint statement which included this paragraph:
"The two leaders agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultation among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners."

Mr Morrison said he interpreted that statement to relate to obligations the United States had to France as North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, partners - an alliance of which Australia is not a member.

"There are certain expectations amongst NATO partners about how they're engaged with each other on national security issues.

"The dialogue between the United States President and the French President was a function of their relationship," he said.

The language of the joint statement of the US and French leaders spoke broadly of "allies".

The senior French official SBS News spoke to rejected that claim by Mr Morrison.

He said it was always intended to be a reference to Australia too.

In particular, the expectation the Australian government would have "consulted with, and trusted the French".

Still, the full cost of damages remains unclear. A $2.4 billion bill has been estimated by advisors to the Prime Minister in what the government calls "investment" - taxpayer money that was already spent on the French submarine deal.

It's a bill often referred to the industry as "sunk costs".

Free trade friction

The financial consequences of breaking off the agreement are likely to cost much more in the long run.

While the French government is stressing that accusations of duplicity and breach of trust do not apply to the Australian people, just the government, it's signalling an appetite to deliver economic damage to Australia.

France takes over the presidency of the European Union next year amid delicate negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement with Australia.

Mr Morrison maintains strongly that the switch to AUKUS was in Australia’s "national interest".

Australia was brokering the partnership over an 18-month period but the details were tightly held.

In Mr Morrison’s view, that was an absolute necessity.

Scott Morrison says election will be held next year

The Prime Minister says access to the coveted US technology for nuclear-powered submarines was too good a deal to pass up, and it is a no-brainer because the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific has changed so substantially.

The secret trilateral talks between Mr Morrison, Mr Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson were seen in Canberra as one of the most important meetings in the last 70 years.

Mr Morrison maintains disclosure to the French at that time would have been inappropriate. He says he has no regrets and understands the French are disappointed.

It is hard to see how that approach will soften ties with France and how much of the reaction is diplomatic posturing on both sides. 

The new Australian deal was struck to counter China’s rise. The full cost of that in relationships and dollars yet to be counted.

Anna Henderson is the chief political correspondent for SBS News.

Published 26 September 2021 at 2:56pm, updated 26 September 2021 at 2:59pm
By Anna Henderson
Source: SBS News