Scott Morrison has been accused of putting his personal political interests ahead of healing Australia’s diplomatic rift with France, after the leaking of a text message from Emmanuel Macron to the prime minister.
The release of a text received two days before the Aukus announcement – when the French president asked Morrison whether to expect good or bad news on the submarine project – was “highly unconventional behaviour between state leaders”, a leading foreign affairs analyst said.
The Morrison government also pushed back at the US government on Tuesday, with the defence minister, Peter Dutton, saying Australia’s key security ally was “kept informed of our every move” in a “no-surprises strategy” in the lead up to the deal between the two countries and the UK.
The Australian newspaper on Tuesday reported details of a 15-page confidential agreed communications timeline that the article said undermined claims by the US president, Joe Biden, that he did not know Australia had not informed France earlier about the cancellation of the French submarine contract.
The extraordinary rift between Australia and France flows from Macron’s accusation that Morrison lied to him over plans with the US and the UK to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines. Morrison rejected the claim and said he was “not going to cop sledging of Australia”.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and the Australian Financial Review reported Macron had texted Morrison two days before the Aukus announcement in mid-September to say: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?”
The leaked message – shared to reinforce Australia’s position that France wasn’t blindsided about the cancellation of the $A90bn submarine deal – also appeared to confirm Macron did not know which way Australia would go shortly before Aukus was unveiled.
It was also reported Macron told Morrison in June, “I don’t like losing,” after the Australian prime minister raised concern in Paris about whether the 12 planned conventionally powered submarines were still suitable for Australia’s strategic needs.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said Morrison was “willing to trash alliances and partnerships for personal political interests, instead of simply admitting this could have been handled better”.
“Mr Morrison needs to explain how selective text messages between him and the French president, and the contents of a confidential 15-page document negotiated in secret between President Biden’s National Security Council and Australian and British officials ended up in Australian newspapers,” Wong said.
“Mr Morrison needs to rule out that this backgrounding came from him, his office or his government. His furious attempts at damage control will only make world leaders trust him less.”
Morrison’s office on Tuesday declined to respond to Wong’s comments, pointing to the prime minister’s comments a day earlier.
Morrison was asked in Glasgow on Monday: “Why did you decide to leak that text message?”
The prime minister did not directly contest the claim, but said he didn’t intend to “indulge your editorial on that”.
Morrison told reporters Macron “was concerned that this would be a phone call that would result in the decision of Australia not to proceed with the contract”.
Morrison said the French defence system “flew into action” the day after his dinner with Macron at the Élysée Palace in June to seek to address issues with the project – including sending a French admiral to Australia “to try and save the contract”.
The French embassy in Canberra did not comment on the release of the text message, although the ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thébault, is due to address the National Press Club on Wednesday.
Comment has also been sought from the US embassy and the White House.
Earlier, a senior White House official declined to clarify who Biden was referring to when he told Macron in Rome last week: “I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not going through. I, honest to God, did not know you had not been.”
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan – when asked on Monday about Morrison’s handling of the matter – replied: “We should look forward and not backward.”
Hervé Lemahieu, the research director at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, said Australia had every right to decide to rescind the French contract and to enter into Aukus, but the communication with France “could have been handled with a bit more deft and diplomacy”.
Lemahieu said the alleged release of the texts was “highly unconventional behaviour between state leaders” and reflected “how personalised the squabble has become”.
“I think the key variable here is that both President Macron and and Prime Minister Morrison are two men who face elections in 2022, and they both see the fracas as a blow to their prestige and their personal standing and they are primarily speaking to a domestic audience here, rather than to each other.”
Lemahieu said he had been monitoring French news stories in recent days “and this is a bigger story in Australia than it is in France”.
He said the handling of the communications with France was “as much an American mismanagement as an Australian one” – as the US is a formal treaty ally of France.
Lemahieu said Biden had “basically decided that it was worth pushing Australia under the bus in order to salvage” the US relationship with France.
The former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – who announced the partnership with France to acquire submarines in 2016 – said Morrison “should apologise” to Macron “because he did very elaborately and duplicitously deceive France”.
The former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd said the situation had become an “extraordinary mess” where “we now have got heads of government, effectively, leaking against each other, in order to establish what transpired in these informal text messages between heads of government”.
“Mr Morrison is now digging an even bigger hole for himself, not just in relation to the French, by effectively himself accusing the French president of lying, but also (in) extraordinary background briefing about the failure in Mr Morrison’s view of American officials to properly apprise the United States president of the nature of the cancellation of the French deal,” Rudd told the ABC.