After mishandling its cancellation of the French submarines contract, the Morrison government is making things worse by suggesting the French really must have, or should have, known what was coming.
As Labor keeps saying on the domestic front, Scott Morrison doesn’t like admitting mistakes.
Instead of accepting the government blundered diplomatically by not giving France proper notice Australia would ditch the $90 billion contract, Morrison has doubled down.
Arriving in the United States, he said: “I had made it very clear that a conventional submarine would no longer be meeting our strategic interests and what we needed those boats to do.
“That had been communicated very clearly many months ago. We were working through those issues.”
This amounts to saying one of two things. That the French fury (as distinct from the “disappointment” Morrison and ministers endlessly repeat from the government’s talking points) is simply confected. Or that the French are plain stupid.
It smacks of trying to find a way to avoid saying Australia stuffed up the diplomacy.
Morrison also said “it was not possible for us to be able to discuss such secure issues in relation to our dealings with other countries at that time”.
Does this really hold up, especially given the closeness of the United States-France relationship?
It is one thing to say the earlier stages of the negotiation of AUKUS had to be secret – it is another matter humiliating the French by implying they are so untrustworthy they had to be kept in the dark until the last minute.
By its cack-handed diplomacy, or lack of diplomacy, the Australian government set off waves that have created problems with spillover effects for its AUKUS partners, especially the US, with whom the French would have been unhappy anyway.
Faced with France’s anger with America, President Joe Biden quickly sought a call with President Emmanuel Macron to attempt to smooths things.
Asked in his New York whether he would be talking with Macron before he met European leaders and Biden, Morrison said there was “not an opportunity for that at this time”. He was “sure that opportunity will come in time”.
“But right now, I understand the disappointment, and they’re working through the consultations with their ambassador who’s returned to Paris and we will be patient about that,” Morrison.
He went on: “We will engage with European leaders, importantly, we’ll continue to engage with ASEAN leaders.”
Morrison spoke to Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo on his way to the US. “I was able to reassure him, particularly about the issues on non-proliferation.” The Indonesians had raised concerns about AUKUS. The Malaysians will require some work too.
To deal with the diplomatic fallout, the most logical course would be for Morrison to concede the lack of proper notice and consultation, in a direct conversation with Macron.
We don’t know whether the PM has made an attempt to call Macron in the wake of the blow up (his office did not answer when asked). Nor do we know whether Macron would be too busy “washing his hair” to take a Morrison call. On Tuesday (Australian time) the White House said it was “still working on the scheduling” of the Biden call.
For Morrison, a frank leader-to-leader discussion, with an admission things should have been handled better, would be the mature approach, and might limit the damage to Australian interests, including to the trade negotiations with Europe. But the PM is not keen on eating even the smallest slice of humble pie.