Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Is this Scott Morrison’s next miscalculation?

Thirty-five thousand feet above the Rocky Mountains on his way home from Washington, DC, Scott Morrison indicated he had learnt little from the greatest miscalculations of his prime ministership, the ones about holidays and family.

In the boardroom of his VIP jet, he was asked a straightforward question by The West Australian’s Lanai Scarr. Would he be going to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow later this year?

Prompting Scarr’s question was the fact that 24 hours earlier Morrison had put his name to the joint statement from Quad leaders that spoke of the “climate crisis” with “the urgency it demands”.

 

Using the royal plural, Morrison said, “We haven’t made any final decisions about that.” One reason he gave for possibly not attending is that it would be “another trip overseas and I’ve been on several this year and spent a lot of time in quarantine”.

Morrison feels this family separation keenly. Following the United States trip, he is once again quarantined in Canberra rather than in Sydney with his wife and children. He drew flak on Father’s Day for using a special exemption to fly back to Canberra after a weekend visit to Kirribilli House. It’s a problem that could be easily solved if he moved his family to the national capital, like thousands of others whose job demands it. Besides, it would do a lot to counter the impression he is a prime minister for New South Wales.

Despite efforts to claim his family is off limits, it clearly isn’t if it clashes with his duties as the country’s leader. His sneaky holiday to Hawaii at the height of the 2019 bushfire catastrophe is a case in point. It was to keep “a promise” to his children. Labor’s Anthony Albanese may have made a pact with Morrison to “keep families out of it”, but the nation was appalled when on his return the prime minister could only proffer the excuse that he “doesn’t hold a hose, mate”.

Albanese is not so forgiving about any proposed Glasgow no-show. More than 100 world leaders, including United States President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, have signed up to attend the conference. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the host of the conference and spending a lot of time trying to achieve meaningful progress.

Johnson privately urged Morrison, when they met in the US last week, to come up with stronger commitments to emissions reductions, something also pushed by Biden’s special climate envoy, John Kerry, at their meeting in New York.

Albanese says Morrison “goes missing on climate change, so it’s no surprise that he may well go missing when it comes to going to Glasgow”. Labor’s Climate Change spokesman, Chris Bowen, is more direct. He says the PM will try to distract from the real reason, but the only explanation for why he wouldn’t turn up is because he’s embarrassed about his government’s inaction. So far Morrison has shown neither the leadership nor gumption of his state Coalition counterparts in NSW, where the government has secured Nationals support for the sort of plan Australia and the planet needs.

Also up in the air is Morrison’s attendance at the G20 summit in Rome in late October. This was designed as a prelude to Glasgow, making it easier for leaders to conveniently attend both. The G20 was formed with an enormous effort by Australia to win a seat at the table with the world’s biggest economies. That may well be why Morrison has cold feet this time: he would come face to face with a still seething Macron, whom he could not honestly look in the eye after the scrapping of the submarine contract.

By any measure, Australia’s handling of the multibillion-dollar French submarine contract was a debacle – one built around the appalling cowardice of Morrison, who did not forewarn the French of the decision. His explanation in the Scarr interview left a yawning credibility gap every bit as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Morrison said Australia had not broken its word “and any suggestion that we have is false”. He said Australia has exercised options under a contract it had every right to exercise. There were gates in the contract that were well understood “by our partners in the project”. He said they had been aware for months about the deep concern on capability questions in regard to conventional submarines and Australia’s needs.

Why then, at no stage in the discussions about problems, were the French told that as a result we were in active negotiations with the US and Britain for a nuclear submarine? Morrison claims the French would have torpedoed those discussions but doesn’t explain how. The suggestion implies the Americans were lukewarm about the deal and it could have been easily scuttled. What does that say about the sort of outcomes we can expect in 18 months’ time, when we are supposed to have arrived at what sort of nuclear submarine we want and from whom – let alone the price tag in this sellers’ market?

Since the deal was announced, the Americans have certainly appeared very welcoming of Australia’s willingness to become even further enmeshed in their seaboard containment of China. And if you can believe President Biden’s joint statement with Macron after their 30-minute phone call, the Americans left it to Australia to handle the French. Biden, by implication, acknowledged that he should have treated a North Atlantic Treaty Organization partner with more respect.

And Macron is certainly looking for more respect. A briefing at the French foreign ministry this week made it very plain. According to an AAP report, Macron is willing to speak with Morrison, but any conversation “needs to be prepared in a serious manner”. No phone call out of the blue will do. Nor would the president be willing to accept arguments that at face value are specious.

Among those arguments are the claims that in the five years since the French contract was signed our strategic situation has changed dramatically, and conventional submarines are no longer fit for purpose. But this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Hugh White, the principal author of the 2000 defence white paper, says China’s newfound assertiveness under Xi Jinping was already well advanced.

Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister who sealed the deal with the French, hit out at his successor this week. He said the damage to Australia’s reputation as a trusted and reliable partner has been trashed and other countries will be very wary of dealing with us.

Perhaps Turnbull’s most revealing comment came in his opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald. He said advice in 2015 from US Navy nuclear engineers was that Australia “could not operate a sovereign nuclear submarine fleet without the civil nuclear industry needed to support its maintenance”. Now, apparently, we are assured that submarines using highly enriched weapons-grade uranium in their reactors can be left unmaintained for 35 years. Unlike the US or Britain, however, if something goes wrong, we will not have the extensive nuclear facilities or expertise to deal with it.

Morrison would have us all believe that his as-yet-unformulated nuclear submarine project is not a Trojan Horse for a domestic nuclear industry. While opinion polls since the deal was unveiled two weeks ago suggest public acceptance, the prime minister is unwilling to push his luck at this election. He says the government’s policy on nuclear hasn’t changed; besides, we have a legislated nuclear industry moratorium and, unless Labor supports a change, “it’s just not on the table”.

Other views on why Morrison may give Rome and Glasgow a miss is that he is thinking very seriously about a late November or early December election. Voters have long since discounted prime ministerial guarantees on running full term. Morrison is certainly no exception.

He told Lanai Scarr that Australians would say, “You’ve been away a bit, you need to focus on things here.” The thing he is most focused on is Covid-19, because “Australia will be opening up around that time, there will be a lot of issues to manage and I have to manage those competing demands”. No demand is more compelling than winning an election. And there’s no better way to do it than being able to campaign freely around a borderless nation.

Not to be missed, the government announced a hard-nosed decision on Wednesday to ensure states can’t easily close their borders or lock down. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced that Covid-19 disaster payments would be phased out as states met the 70 and 80 per cent fully vaccinated benchmarks.

This relief is costing $1 billion a week while NSW, Victoria and the ACT remain in lockdown. Frydenberg says these payments were always meant to be temporary and, besides, he is backing Australia’s plan to reopen.

Before he left the US, Morrison said what he would like Australians to have for Christmas is their lives back, and that’s within the gift of governments. He is now calculating whether the promise of that would help him win a tight election more than gratitude for it happening at a poll early in the new year.

Another miscalculation would be fatal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Easy come, easy Glasgow".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.