Prime minister Scott Morrison has gone to lengths to show how he cancelled a submarine deal with France, responding to high-stakes criticism from French president Emmanuel Macron who has cast doubt on his integrity following the decision.
Morrison hit back at comments from Macron — who on Monday claimed Morrison had lied over the deal and damaged Australia’s credibility — stating he wouldn’t “cop sledging at Australia”.
The prime minister walked reporters through details of how the deal was sunk, explaining he had early concerns about delays, Australian content and costs, which he expressed to Macron while tasking Defence with looking into backup plans.
He met with Macron in June this year after a meeting with the US and UK leaders in Carbis Bay, England, where the three leaders had discussed a nuclear option but not yet committed to it.
Morrison said the dinner with Macron was to “share with him where Australia’s thinking was”.
But while the pair discussed Australia’s position that diesel-powered submarines from France were no longer suitable, they did not discuss what alternatives Australia was looking at because those conversations with the US and UK were “in confidence”, Morrison said.
“Only at that point had it then escalated to the possibility and likelihood of us potentially going down another track,” he said.
“What we did discuss was the issues that we were still dealing with, with the [diesel-powered] Attack class submarines.”
Morrison said he then gave France an opportunity to respond to his concerns in the following months. The nations’ defence officials engaged in discussions, and Macron sent top navy brass to Australia to address the issues.
“We eventually formed the view that we would agree to disagree, that the Attack class submarine would not meet our requirements,” Morrison said.
Australia then in September took the opportunity to withdraw from the contract as both parties approached a “gate” that allowed the deal to end.
Morrison pointed out the gate should have been reached in December but delays in the project pushed that timeframe back. “That opened up a further opportunity to pursue our alternative, which I did in Australia’s interests, and I make no apology for,” he said.
Australia sought a phone call with Macron as Morrison prepared to announce the new AUKUS partnership with the US and UK, but was told the French president wasn’t available.
In a text message leaked this week, which Morrison refused to go into the source of, Macron asked Morrison in September: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambition?”
Morrison responded by asking for a phone call, but the call never occurred and Macron then received news of the AUKUS deal two days later by phone and letter.
“He was concerned that this would be a phone call that would result in the decision of Australia not to proceed with the contract. And that happened several days before the decision was made,” Morrison said.
He reiterated that the nuclear-powered option was in Australia’s best interests and said he was prepared to work with France again once tensions had eased.
“We will go forward and make some suggestions about ways that can be done,” Morrison said.
“But it is clear from president Macron’s statements yesterday that I don’t think they are of a mind to do that at the moment. I understand that and we’ll just get on with it and we’ll move on.”