How will Emmanuel Macron’s ‘liar’ claim about Scott Morrison play in the focus groups?

Scott Morrison considered whether to go to the G20 and COP26. The politically hard-headed will think that it might have been wiser to have stayed at home.

Although important internationally, the Glasgow Conference is billed as a harm minimization task for the Prime Minister. And the G20 was not expected to provide much that was useful to him.

Everyone knew that after the cancellation of the submarine contract, an awkward meeting with France’s Emmanuel Macron was possible at one of these meetings.

But it is safe to say that no one expected the French president to call pants-on-fire when asked about the prime minister.

Morrison had claimed that the divided Australian-French relationship was beginning to recover, albeit slowly.

He tried to emphasize the progress by addressing Macron for a moment outside the stage at the G20, which was captured by his official photographer.

Morrison later told reporters: “He had a talk with someone. I went up and just put my arm on his shoulder, I said, ‘G’day Emmanuel, and look forward to catching up over the next few days.’

“And he was happy to exchange those greetings, and we’ve known each other for a while. But you know, it’s just the process of being on the way back.”

But the picture told a different story – the look in Macron’s eyes was anything but friendly.

A photo of French President Macron wearing a mask and Scott Morrison with his hand on Macron's shoulder.
Macron (left) and Mr Morrison share a strained greeting at the G20 summit.(Delivered: Prime Minister’s Office, Adam Taylor)

Macron had none of the Morrison spins. When the Australian media a day later asked if he thought the Prime Minister had lied to him about the cancellation of the submarine contract, he said: “I do not think I know.”

The French were furious at the time over the sudden announcement of AUKUS and the way the subordinate contract was terminated, they say without notice.

Although their ambassador is now back in Canberra – and in the National Press Club on Wednesday – anger is apparently still strong.

In a telephone conversation, just as Morrison was about to travel to Rome, Macron told him it was up to the Australian government “to propose tangible actions” to redefine the bilateral relationship.

Morrison tends to speak of the French rather as if they are children deprived of a prized toy who is naturally “disappointed” but simply needs time to get over their tantrums.

Admitting mistakes or showing remorse is not part of Morrison’s political repertoire. Instead, he denies when he gets caught or bumped into a corner, he spins, blisters, changes subject.

The straightforwardness of the French president has made these tactics more difficult to implement. But Morrison always has excuses.

Macron blind? The Prime Minister claims that the President should have realized from their six-month talks in Paris that the contract would probably become history.

“I was very aware that what would be delivered to us would not meet our strategic interests,” he said at the weekend.

Did he indicate that he would break the submarine agreement? No, but: “We all understood what the gates in the contract were and what then had to be decided.”

Did the French stay in the dark about the Australian move to new partners and nuclear submarines? Morrison says they could not be brought into the secret around AUKUS.

Joe Biden – who again apologized to Macron for the lack of communication – and said he had not known that the French were not in the loop much earlier? Apparently, US officials were not due to pass on information to the president.

Morrison rejected Macron’s claim that he had lied – “it’s not true” – and breached his line that: “I will always stand up for Australia’s interests.”

The French will be further outraged by the intervention of acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who tried to minimize the whole affair.

“We did not steal an island. We did not spoil the Eiffel Tower – it was a contract. And contracts have terms and conditions, and one of the terms and conditions and suggestions is that you might get out of the contract.” he said.

Asked if things could have been handled better, Joyce said: “In hindsight – do you know tomorrow that the Melbourne Cup is underway? If only I could bet on last year’s one, boy, I would make some money.”

Barnaby Joyce holds up a hand to the opposition as he speaks at the dispatch box in the lower house.
Barnaby Joyce minimized the ongoing French anger over the abolished submarine deal. (ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

Another line the government is running is that the French have an election on the way. Secretary of Defense Peter Dutton raised this last week. Whether this is a factor in Macron’s reaction or not, it simply adds to the diplomatic rift to pull it short.

On Monday in Glasgow, Morrison hit back hard, effectively casting Macron’s attack as one against Australia. Morrison stated that he personally had broad shoulders, but “I do not intend to drive a police sleigh on Australia”.

The government also briefed details on the days immediately before the announcement of the contract expiration.

When Macron knew or suspected what was to come, he refused to take a call from Morrison, who intended to inform him personally about the decision. He sent a message saying, “Should I expect good or bad news for our common submarine ambitions?”

What are the political costs to Morrison? Internationally, it is very bad for his and Australia’s reputation.

And indirectly, it has brought back questions about the AUKUS submarine agreement, which will not deliver boats until around 2040, which increasingly seems to be a very worrying time frame.

Domestically, Labor has seized the “liar” line to bolster their argument that Morrison is misleading, and even worse.

Morrison will (and should) be embarrassed by what has happened. But he will be more keen to ask what voters think, and he will probably expect to be able to neutralize Macron’s claim on the home front.

And it is by invoking “national interest”, which lies next to national security.

“I do not want to say that [relationship with France] interest rates that are higher than Australia’s national interest and I do not think any Australian would expect me to … give up that interest for someone else’s sake, “he said.

He will bet that in the focus groups, although this may be seen as fresh government disorder, they will not be on Macron’s side.

And that’s where Morrison’s attention is centered, as he currently looks at everything through next year’s election prism.

Michelle Grattan is a professor at the University of Canberra and political correspondent at The Conversation, where this article first appeared.

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