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The Prime Minister, the President and the leaked texts

Paul Bongiorno on Scott Morrison’s damaged international standing, and the impact it has on Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has just returned from two international summits, but Australia’s diplomatic standing is worse than ever.

His handling of a $100 billion submarine contract has created tension with both France and the United States, two traditional allies, and he’s also been accused by his predecessor of being a serial liar.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on Scott Morrison’s damaged international standing, and the impact it has on Australia.


Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY: 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

 

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has just returned from two international summits -- but Australia’s diplomatic standing is worse than ever.

 

His handling of a $100 billion submarine contract has created tension with both France and the United States - two traditional allies - and he’s also been accused by his predecessor of being a serial liar.

 

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno, on Scott Morrison’s damaged international standing, and the impact it has on Australia

 

It’s Friday, November 5. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:
Paul, the diplomatic crisis between Australia and France seems to have dramatically escalated this week. So how serious has the situation become?
 

PAUL:
Ruby this started out as a high level strategic challenge for Prime Minister Scott Morrison

 

But in recent days it’s turned into the biggest diplomatic crisis Australia has faced since the second world war. 

 

 It risks permanently damaging our relationship with not only France, but also and more importantly with the United States, given the clumsy way the government has handled it so far.

 

And Ruby the concern here is that, because of how Morrison has fumbled it every step of the  way, it could get even worse.

 

RUBY:
Mmm, okay this all began Paul with a dispute about our submarine deal with France, is that right?

 

PAUL:
Yeah, that’s right. 

 

The background here is that when Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister back in 2016 he struck a $90 billion deal with the French to upgrade Australia’s submarine fleet.

We were going to replace our Collins class subs with French designed, diesel-powered version of their nuclear Barracuda submarines.

 

But then, fast forward to this year, in early September, Scott Morrison announced he was scrapping the deal with the French 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“The first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear powered fleet of submarines for Australia.”

 

PAUL:
In favour of building a fleet of American or British nuclear submarines - as part of a military pact known as AUKUS. 

 

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:
“Thank you, Boris, and. I want to thank that fellow Down Under. Thank you very much, pal. Appreciate it. Mr. Prime Minister”

 

PAUL:
Well that sparked a furious response from the French government,

 

Archival tape -- French Government:
In french "it was really a stab in the back" 

 

PAUL:
its foreign minister accused Australia of stabbing France in the back.


Archival tape -- French Government:
"we built a relationship of trust with Australia and that trust was betrayed."

 

RUBY:

Mmm so that was in September. Since then, things have been quiet on the submarine deal front… but then, this week world leaders gathered in Rome for the G20. And that’s where things seemed to have kicked off again - what happened? 

 

PAUL:
Well, a lot.

As well as sparking a diplomatic rift with Australia, the submarine deal had also impacted the United States’ relationship with France. 

 

For the first time in 250 years they withdrew their ambassador from Washington in a stinging protest. And in Rome in front of the TV cameras President Biden went out of his way to eat humble pie and patch things up with the French...
 

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:
“I think what happened was to use the English phrase what we did was clumsy. This was not done with a lot of grace.”


PAUL:
At a joint news conference with Macron, Biden admitted the way the announcement was handled was clumsy and graceless. 

 

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:
“I was under the impression that France informed long before that deal was not going through. I honest to God didn’t know you had not been.”

 

PAUL:
He said that he was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal would not come through. It did look like he was shifting all of the blame here to Australia.

 

RUBY:
Mm okay so Joe Biden was attempting to humbly apologise, but in doing so, it seems like he threw Australia under the bus. So how did our government react?

 

PAUL:
Well curiously Ruby, if I can put it that way, just one day after Biden seemed to suggest it was all Australia’s fault, a story appeared in The Australian newspaper implying it was Biden who was lying.

 

The story was about a confidential 15-page document negotiated in secret between the US,  UK and Australia that made it clear Australia would tell France on the day the deal was announced that its $90 billion submarine contract was going to be scrapped.

The story cited a source in Canberra saying everything was “timed and understood completely.” And Ruby I’d have to say no prizes for guessing who that source might be. The release of this highly confidential document is without doubt Morrison retaliating after Biden’s comments. 

 

And seasoned Defence experts in Canberra are gobsmacked. One told me the White House would be appalled by this breach of trust in releasing a highly confidential document to damage the president of our biggest, most important ally.

 

RUBY:
Ok somehow Australia managed to get itself into a situation Paul, where we’re in conflict with the US. This began with France though - it was the French who were annoyed about this cancelled submarine deal. So what is the latest with that relationship… it seems like things haven’t been going well there either? Can you tell me about what’s been happening between Scott Morrison and the French President Emmanual Macron? 

 

PAUL:
Well the situation has gotten even worse. 

 

Archival tape -- Journalist:
“Do you think he lied to you?”     

 

PAUL:
President Macron was asked directly in Rome by Australian journalists about whether he thought Morrison had lied to him by not disclosing he was secretly negotiating with the United States to nix Australia’s deal with France.

 

Archival tape -- President Macron:
“I don’t think, I know.” 

 

PAUL:
He responded “I don’t think, I know.”

 

It was an extraordinary response. A sitting president accusing the Australian Prime Minister of lying, at a global summit.

 

Archival tape -- Journalist:
“Can you trust Scott Morrison again?”

 

Archival tape -- President Macron:
“We have discussed … I mean … we will see what he will deliver …”

 

RUBY:
And so how did Scott Morrison respond to the accusation he had lied?

 

PAUL:
Well there was a pattern.

 

It was a similar strategy to that used in response to Biden: he leaked. But this time he did something unprecedented. He leaked private text messages between him and President Macron.

And then Ruby, all hell broke loose.

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Paul, it seems unexpected - that a private text message between Scott Morrison and the French President would be leaked to the public. What exactly did the text message say?  

 

PAUL:
So, Morrison had been trying to set up a phone call with Macron a couple of days before the scrapping of the submarine deal was announced.

 

He wasn’t able to get on the phone, but Macron replied via text saying: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarine ambitions?”.

 

RUBY:
Right ok, and what is Scott Morrison’s office hoping to prove by leaking that message, Paul?

 

PAUL:
So the text is supposed to prove that Macron knew what was coming - that the submarine deal with the French was no-go. 

 

But Ruby, the text really did no such thing, rather it showed that Macron didn’t know what was happening to “our joint submarine ambitions”, hence the question, good news or bad news.

 

The reaction from the French to the leak was furious. 

 

Midweek at the National Press club, the recently returned French ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thebault was scathing in his reaction to Morrison’s leaking of a personal text message .

 

Archival tape -- French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault:
“The second thing concerning the leaks, this is an unprecedented new low. In terms of how to proceed. And also in terms of truth and trust.”

 

PAUL:
Thebault said it was an unprecedented new low. 

 

Archival tape -- French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault:
You don't behave like this. On personal exchanges of leaders were allies. But maybe it's just a confirmation that we were never seen as an ally. 

 

PAUL:
And if those leaks are Australia’s answer to Macron’s claims of lying then it is, quote “sad”.

 

Archival tape -- French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault:
But doing so also sends a very worrying signal, the old adage states beware. In Australia, there will be leaks. And what you say in confidence to your partners will be eventually used and weaponized against you.

 

RUBY:
Mm it’s a pretty scathing - though perhaps fair -  response from the French. So how is Scott Morrison defending this tactic? 

 

PAUL:
Well Morrison tried to dodge specific questions about it. He was asked directly if the leak came from his office, and gave a complete non-answer.

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“It’s important now that we all just move on, frankly.” 

 

PAUL:
It obviously came from him, it was his phone, and it suited his political interests.

 

And throughout all of this, Scott Morrison just keeps coming back to the same refrain, saying everything he is doing is in Australia’s national interest. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“And I wanted to tell him personally that we'd form that decision because in correspondence as well as my own messages, I'd made it very clear that at the end of the day, Australia's national interest was going to determine our decision. And it did.”

 

RUBY:
I guess that’s the big question here. All of this tit for tat feels very high school. But this is an issue about Australia’s national security, nuclear armed submarines and nearly $100 billion worth of taxpayer money. Is anything in this dispute really in our national interest? And if not, what is this all about? 

 

PAUL:
Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister who originally signed off on the French deal, is in no doubt that this has undermined Australia’s national interest.

 

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:
“Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies. I mean, this is a shocking, shocking conduct.” 

 

PAUL:
He personally accused Morrison of being a habitual liar and sacrificing the country’s reputation.

 

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:
“Tell you what Scott Morrison has done. He has sacrificed Australian honour, Australian security and Australian sovereignty.”

PAUL:
Look, I'd have to say, Ruby, that Morrison's approach to this diplomatic crisis in many ways parallels the way he's handled Australia's response to the climate crisis. It looks inept and it sounds dishonest. The bulk of Morrison's boasting in his upbeat address to the summit was a fanciful optimism that either unproven or as yet non-existent technology will save the planet by 2050. And really, Australia doesn't have to do much more about it. 

 

Now, whether this palpable loss of credibility on the world stage and with hitherto trusted allies translates into voters losing trust in Scott Morrison's incompetent and do-nothing government, well, we'll find that out when he faces the voters in a few months’ time. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm Paul, thank you for your time.

 

PAUL:
Thank you Ruby, good bye.

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

In a landmark ruling the Fair Work Commision has declared that all farm workers will now receive a minimum wage.

 

The ruling effectively abolishes piece rates - where workers are paid according to the amount they pic. The Commission found the current system meant some workers were paid as little as 3 dollars an hour. 

 

And Alan Jones has been dumped by Sky News. The former radio shock jock announced on Facebook that Sky management had not renewed his television contract.
 

Earlier this year the Sky News Youtube channel was temporarily banned after a number of misleading statements were made by Alan Jones about Covid-19

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.

 

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.


I’m Ruby Jones, see ya next week.

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