Scott Morrison throws cold water on France's 'technology secrets' claim

As the diplomatic stoush between Australia and France continues, the focus has shifted towards the nature of the now-cancelled submarine deal.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during the Quad summit at the White House.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during the Quad summit at the White House. Source: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government was "working in good faith" during its submarine contract with France before it was cancelled.

He dismissed assertions by the French ambassador that the agreement went beyond an ordinary commercial transaction and French "technology secrets" were divulged.

Tensions between the countries continue to simmer following Canberra’s decision to withdraw its $90-billion order of a fleet of submarines from France, in favour of nuclear-powered submarines with US and British technology under the new AUKUS security partnership.

On Saturday, Mr Morrison told SBS News in an exclusive interview that it “would have been negligent” on his part to continue with a contract that was “not going to meet” Australia’s needs.

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He said it was important that relations with Paris “normalise” which comes a week after the European country recalled its ambassador to Australia and the US.

While there are signs that relations between France and the US were on the mend following a phone meeting between the leaders of both countries, it appears not to be the case with Australia.

"What’s important to me is that we get back to a normal relationship with France, and we get on with the work we were doing before - because the submarine contract was only one element of our relationship," Mr Morrison said.

"France is a great partner in the Pacific. France is a great partner amongst Liberal democracies. We share values, we share an outlook and we want to be partners with France.”

France's Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault at Sydney Airport, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Source: AP

The comments come after France's ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thébault told SBS French the decision to scrap the deal goes beyond a breach of a contract, describing it as "treason in the making".

Mr Thébault added that the nature of the contract went beyond an ordinary commercial transaction, to one where there was an exchange of "technology secrets". 

"It was (really) a true relation of partnership, a true relation of confidence, of trust between two major countries in the Indo-Pacific.

"So it was something of a completely different nature than an ordinary contract."

Mr Morrison rejected any insinuation that his government had exploited military and intelligence secrets during the deal as "nonsense".

“We were working in good faith in a contract, working together, paying our bills, too, by the way. 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 prime minister reaffirmed that if Australia continued with the submarine contract, "it would have been terribly against Australia's interests".

"Of course, I couldn't continue with that. And of course, when you make a tough decision like that, it's not going to be welcomed by the other party to the contract. I understand that.

"But we're just going to have to persist through it, engage more. And I believe we'll get there because ultimately we share the same principles, we share the same beliefs and we share the same goals." 

On Thursday, the CEO of French defence contractor Naval Group said it would bill Australia “in the next few weeks” following the deal cancellation.

In response, Mr Morrison said both parties would “work through those issues” in accordance with the contract.

"We've been very clear in our understanding of what our obligations are here and we're acting in accordance with those.

"Let me just be really clear, the suggestion that some seem to be making, that Australia should have gone ahead with a contract costing taxpayers in Australia tens of billions of dollars to build a boat that was not going to meet our needs, would have been negligent.

"So I had to make the tough decision and I understood in doing that, it was going to cause some upset and disappointment with our friend and partner, France."

The comments come as Trade Minister Dan Tehan said he remained hopeful that an “open invitation” would be accepted when he visits Paris in October, after confirming his French counterpart turned down an offer to meet.

Australia's Trade Minister Dan Tehan.
Source: AAP

Mr Tehan is set to visit the French capital for an Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) meeting. He said on Saturday he wished to meet France’s trade minister Franck Riester to "explain" Australia’s decision.

"My hope is we will be able to sit down and discuss this issue," he said.

"There's an open invitation for me to sit down with my French counterpart and be able to explain the decision - a decision that was taken in our national interest which was about protecting our sovereignty, our security - and I would be able to sit down and work through that with my counterpart."

However, an official from Mr Riester's office said on Friday that the offer had been rejected.

"We won't follow up the Australian minister's request for a meeting," the official said. 'We can't go on as if it was business as usual."

Mr Tehan said he still held hopes the pair could discuss the issue.

"When I saw that report, what I did was I spoke to our ambassador in Paris and just said, 'Please, just extend that invitation - it's an open invitation. I'd be more than willing to sit down and talk to our counterpart and work through this issue'."

Published 26 September 2021 at 1:55pm
By Anna Henderson, Peter Theodosiou
Source: SBS News