The Australian defence minister, Peter Dutton, has urged France to put aside any “hurt feelings” over the scrapping of the submarine contract in order to focus on the “great uncertainty with China in our region”.
A day after the French ambassador described the Australian government’s release of a private text message as a new low, Dutton said the envoy was simply “reading from a script from Paris” and Emmanuel Macron’s government was “posturing” ahead of next year’s presidential election.
With senior members of the Australian government defending the leak as necessary step to rebut the claim Scott Morrison was a liar, and with one backbencher labelling France a “spurned lover”, Labor went on the attack.
Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, said Morrison had shown he was someone “whose reflex is spin rather than sincerity” and “stubbornly refuses to say, yes, we could have handled this better”.
“You don’t make a country more secure by demonstrating that you’re prepared to damage at any cost, damage partnerships and alliances,” Wong told the ABC.
“We’ve seen a leader who did that – and that person was Donald Trump.”
The extraordinary rift between Australia and France flows from the Morrison government’s decision to walk away from a $90bn French-backed project to deliver 12 conventional submarines, and instead get US and UK help to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
In an attempt to counter the claim France was blindsided by the decision, a text was released to several Australian media outlets showing the French president asked Morrison two days before the Aukus announcement: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?”
Dutton said it was time to “move on” and “recognise that we’ve made a decision that is in our country’s best interests, and nobody from Scott Morrison down is going to apologise for that”.
The defence minister argued the French “were going to be upset whenever they were told” about the decision.
“It would have been the reaction had they been told, sooner or later in between – it wouldn’t have mattered,” Dutton told 2GB radio on Thursday.
“If we had a contract cancelled on us, the Australian government would be upset at that lost revenue. And you know, the French have got an election coming up in April – you understand all of that posturing.”
Dutton first linked the French reaction to the looming presidential election last week, when he said “politicians and elections make an interesting mix” – although the Morrison government is also due to face voters at an election by May.
The French ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thébault, alluded to Dutton’s earlier comment on Wednesday, asking why Australia had jumped into “the total unknown, with so much spin, spectacular marketing, but no concrete answers”.
“Maybe, as mentioned by a prominent and knowledgable Australian specialist, there were then elections looming,” the ambassador said, while also arguing the Australian government had intentionally deceived France.
Dutton played down Thébault’s remarks, saying the ambassador was “reading from a script from Paris” after being recalled for consultations in September.
Dutton said the ambassador had “a job to do” but it was important for France and Australia to work closely together because of strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
“The Communist party of China has taken a particular course and we need to all work together to make sure that we have peace and stability in our region,” Dutton said.
“Any blip in relation to that, any concern, hurt feelings, frankly, needs to be put aside for us to concentrate on the bigger issue, which is making sure that we protect and defend our country.”
Senior Australian ministers have defended the release of the Macron text – linking it to the French president’s own comment, “I don’t think, I know,” when asked whether he thought Morrison had lied to him.
“The claim was pretty extraordinary and it needed to be refuted,” the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, told the Nine Network.
Morrison insists he “made very clear” to Macron over dinner in Paris in mid-June “that a conventional diesel-powered submarine was not going to meet Australia’s strategic requirements”.
But Morrison also said he wasn’t at liberty at that stage to disclose to Macron that Australia was working with the US and the UK on a plan B, because it had not yet been finalised and was held “in confidence”.
Aukus was a key focus of a call between Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, on Thursday morning.
The pair discussed “the ways in which we will deepen our engagement with other key allies and partners in our collective efforts to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific”, the US state department said.
China has leapt on the diplomatic dispute to further its own criticism of Aukus.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said: “Australia should not only give honest answers to its partner’s questioning, but also honestly face up to the international community’s concerns, earnestly fulfil its non-proliferation obligations, and stop such irresponsible behaviour as creating bloc confrontation and proliferation risks.”