Scott Morrison has hit back against an extraordinary accusation from the French president that Australia’s prime minister lied to him over an abandoned $90bn submarine contract, declaring he will not “cop sledging” about Australia’s integrity.
Speaking to reporters in Glasgow where he is attending the UN climate conference Cop26, Morrison said Emmanuel Macron was well aware that Australia was contemplating pulling out of the troubled Naval Group diesel submarine contract.
Morrison said he was as transparent as possible with the French president that diesel-powered submarines were not going to meet Australia’s capability needs.
Morrison said he did not wish to “personalise” his rebuttal of Macron’s allegation, delivered on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome.
Australia’s prime minister said he had “broad shoulders”, but he did not intend to take “slurs” about Australia’s national integrity.
“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.
“I can deal with whatever people throw at me. But Australia has a proud record when it comes to our defence capability.”
Macron’s target was clearly Morrison when he fired a broadside at his Australian counterpart in Rome, with the French president saying he had a lot of “respect and friendship” for Australia and Australians.
After Macron’s impromptu accusation in Rome, text messages from the French president were leaked to some Australian media outlets. One leaked Macron text two days before Australia cancelled the Naval group contract and unveiled the Aukus pact with the United States and Britain had the president asking Australia’s prime minister: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?”
The leak of the texts was likely an exercise in damage control after Macron blindsided Morrison with his remarks to Australian journalists at the conclusion of the G20 meeting on Sunday night.
Morrison was visibly furious at the slight. But the leaked message shared to reinforce Australia’s position confirmed that Macron did not know which way Australia would go on the eve of the Aukus pact being announced.
Morrison was asked on Monday why Macron’s private messages had been leaked. The prime minister said he didn’t intend to “indulge your editorial on that”.
He insisted that Macron’s claim to have been blindsided by the cancellation of the contract was contradicted by France’s own actions after the two leaders dined at the Elysee Palace after a G7 summit in the middle of the year.
Morrison says he conveyed Australia’s significant hesitations about the Naval Group contract at that point. But he said he was not at that time in a position to be entirely candid with Macron about his plan to acquire nuclear submarines through the Aukus pact.
“The suggestion that these things were not raised [with Macron] does not gel with the way the French defence system flew into action the very next day [after the dinner in Paris],” Morrison said.
He noted a French admiral had been sent to Australia to “try and save the contract after our dinner in Elysee”. Morrison said France would not have launched a rearguard action to save the multibillion dollar deal on that scale “if there was no concern about the contract being under threat”.
Morrison said he also tried to give Macron a heads-up about the Aukus pact before it was unveiled publicly, but the French president wasn’t available to take a call. Morrison said he then texted Macron to say it was important that the two leaders spoke.
Asked whether Macron – an important ally – deserved better than a last minute heads up, Morrison said: “This was a highly secure decision, a highly secure environment over which we had held these things incredibly tightly … for more than a year.”
“[Macron] was clearly aware over some months that there were concerns, and they were responding to those concerns, and we had correspondence and other messaging during the course of that period,” the prime minister said.
“We decided in Australia’s interests not to go ahead with the [Naval Group] contract,” he said. “There was a contract, it had a gate, and that gate should have actually been passed through last December.”
“Delays in the contract meant that didn’t occur and that it extended out well into July. We had not made a decision, which [France] would have been very well aware of, we had still not made a decision on the scope two works, and they were seeking to respond to that.
“But at the end of the day, I am going to take the tough decisions to ensure Australia has the best defence capability.”
Morrison eased around a question about whether France had offered to supply Australia with nuclear submarines as an alternative. He told reporters in Glasgow Australia wasn’t interested in that option.
He also declined to answer a question about whether he had failed to tell Macron about the Aukus discussion because the Biden administration had sought total secrecy.
Morrison has faced public opprobrium about his conduct during the submarine fracas not only from Macron, but also from the US president Joe Biden.
Shortly after Morrison arrived in Italy for the G20, Biden moved to repair his own damaged personal and political relationship with Macron by acknowledging that the Aukus announcement had been a “clumsy” episode handled with a lack of grace.
Biden told Macron with television cameras present that he was “under the impression that France had been informed” about Australia’s intention to ditch the contract “long before” the Aukus pact was revealed publicly.
It was unclear whether the US president was rebuking Morrison, or his own senior staff for failing to keep him abreast of the nuances.