Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
How Morrison spectacularly failed the diplomacy test

In one of the most remarkable developments, certainly since the Second World War, an Australian prime minister has leaked a highly confidential security document against an American president.

Think about that.

On the international stage, Scott Morrison put his own domestic political interests ahead of maintaining public trust between Canberra and its most important strategic and treaty partner, the United States. He did this at a freezing quayside news conference in Glasgow, in the context of hitting back at French president Emmanuel Macron, who 24 hours earlier told Australian journalists he did not “think” the Australian prime minister had lied to him, he knew.

France’s fury over the duplicitous way in which Morrison withdrew from its $90 billion conventional submarine contract was one thing; US president Joe Biden throwing the Australian prime minister under a bus for the “clumsy” and graceless way in which Paris was treated is another.

In front of the world’s television cameras, Biden told Macron he was “under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not going through. I, honest to God, did not know you had not been.”

And this is where Morrison’s habitual way of playing politics badly let himself down, as well as Australia’s best interests. A document was duly leaked to The Australian implying Biden was lying to Macron. Does anybody actually suspect the leak was authorised by someone other than the prime minister himself? The likelihood of seasoned diplomats at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade being consulted first is remote. Certainly Foreign Minister Marise Payne was nowhere to be seen or heard.

Morrison is notoriously a secretive lone ranger who backs his own judgement, often with politically calamitous results. In this instance he was desperately seeking to establish that he had as good as told Macron what was happening. He did it back in June but even on his own testimony what Morrison told the French president was only half the truth. Australia was unhappy with the conventional submarine decision and was reviewing it. Macron clearly thought he was part of the review; after all, France could supply its nuclear-powered Barracuda submarine.

At that stage Macron was given no indication that the so-called AUKUS pact was finalised the day before on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Cornwall. The pact included the provision of British or American nuclear submarines instead. This, of course, is a key contributor to France’s anger, not only with Australia but particularly with its oldest ally, the US.

The headline to the story in The Australian was “How Biden knew plan all along”. It revealed that a confidential 15-page document negotiated in secret between Biden’s National Security Council and British and Australian officials “describes, to the hour, how the world would be told” of the pact.

The piece said the document, which Biden’s closest advisers signed off on, “made it clear Australia would tell France on that day, September 16, that its $90 billion submarine contract was being scrapped”. It cited a source in Canberra saying everything was “timed and understood completely”. No prizes for guessing who that source might be.

The release of this highly confidential document is without doubt Morrison returning the compliment to Biden. A former senior Defence Department bureaucrat and the author of the 2000 Defence white paper, Hugh White, says the Biden White House would not look kindly on this leak. It feeds into questions of competence of the administration, particularly after the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal and indeed of the “ageing president” himself. The kindest explanation is that key sections of the government do not communicate between themselves or upwards to the president.

But if it is Biden playing politics, as the “Canberra source” suspects, then Australia runs a poor second to France as far as the president is concerned. That Morrison was so ham-fisted in his diplomacy cannot be in Australia’s national interest, despite his insistence that the country’s security is the sole reason for this embarrassing and extremely costly mess.

As Sean Kelly writes in his perceptive new book The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, the prime minister sees politics as a kind of sport. What’s foremost at stake is his self-interest. That could not be truer after the events of the past few days.

Midweek, at the National Press Club, the recently returned French ambassador, Jean-Pierre Thébault, was scathing in his reaction to Morrison’s leaking of a personal text message from Macron. The text was proffered to show the president knew what was coming. It did no such thing. Rather it showed he didn’t know what was happening to “our joint submarine ambitions” – either good news or bad news.

Thébault said if those leaks are Australia’s answer to Macron’s claims of lying then it “is sad”. He made the same point Malcolm Turnbull has been making about the French leak and also, critically, the disclosure of the confidential US document.

The ambassador said it sends a message to other world leaders to be aware of what you say to Australia in confidence, “because it will be used and weaponised against you”.

Hugh White says Morrison’s claims the conventional submarines would have been “obsolete almost the minute they got into the water” is simply wrong. Conventional submarines, he says, will continue to have capacities more suited to a range of situations. The main reason to have nuclear submarines is to chase down Chinese nuclear submarines a long way from home. Any war talk with China over Taiwan, for example, “is a dark long tunnel” that has the distinct possibility of a nuclear conflagration at the end of it.

Besides, on the new timetable, if Australia ever gets around to actually having a nuclear submarine, it is 20 years away – hardly indicative of the strategic urgency the prime minister is asserting behind his decision.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, says Morrison shouldn’t treat other world leaders “the way he treats state premiers here in Australia”, where he often deals with them as political opponents rather than people with whom he needs to develop trusting relationships.

The prime minister who signed the original submarine contracts, Malcolm Turnbull, doesn’t hold back in his criticism. It’s hardly surprising. Imagine if a Labor government ditched a multibillion-dollar defence project that was less than five years old, then claimed it to be useless a month after Australian and French ministers met and in their communiqué said how important the future of the program was. It’s not hard to imagine Morrison, were he opposition leader, claiming Labor couldn’t be trusted with the nation’s defence.

Turnbull says just that of his successor. He says Morrison should apologise to President Macron for not dealing with him honestly, as any trusted partner and ally should. Turnbull, too, sees the embroiling of the US in the breakdown of relations as a very unhealthy development for Australia. He says Morrison can bluster as much as he likes but it is not fooling anyone. He says, Morrison “has sacrificed Australian honour, Australian security and Australian sovereignty”. And, the former prime minister says, “that is a shocking thing”.

Macron made the same points in his impromptu doorstop, while also saying how much he valued the mutual history of our nations as defenders of freedom and how much he admired Australians. Morrison swept that aside and took criticism of his double-dealing as an insult to all Australians. He said the questioning of Australia’s integrity was unacceptable and he was not “going to cop sledging at Australia. I am not going to cop that on behalf of Australians.”

Albanese accused Morrison of trying to use the nation as a “human shield”, of having the same delusions as Louis XIV, who famously said, “I am the state.” He said he had news for the prime minister: he isn’t the state of Australia, he “is a leader with a track record of not answering questions directly, of dissembling, of gaslighting and of not being fair dinkum in the way he deals with issues”.

This rings true of Morrison’s approach to the Glasgow climate talks. Nick Feik in The Monthly is not alone in describing the prime minister’s contribution as “inept and dishonest”. The claimed 20 per cent reduction in emissions since 2005 owes more to the Gillard government’s “carbon price” and renewable energy incentives, which the Liberals scrapped, than anything the party has done since.

The bulk of Morrison’s boasting in his upbeat address to the summit was fanciful optimism that either unproved or as-yet-non-existent technology will save the planet by 2050. He completely ignored the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warning that on the current trajectory humans will heat the planet by 1.5 degrees in less than a decade. And, unless action is taken now, cooling the world will be increasingly hard and more likely impossible.

We will know within months whether this palpable loss of credibility on the world stage translates into voters losing trust in Scott Morrison’s incompetent and do-nothing government. That’s the time frame for an election the prime minister must be dreading. What is certain is that an unchecked, rapidly warming planet will deliver a harsher judgement either way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Text sook diplomacy".

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