Good faith gutted: France’s $90 billion bone to pick with Australia

By Melissa Coade

Thursday November 4, 2021

Jean-Pierre Thebault
French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault makes his point. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Scott Morrison’s ‘Canberra bubble’ has received a strong rebuke from the French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault, who said France will always consider the Australian people friends but the ‘treason’ of the government’s ‘secret plan’ to dump a submarine manufacturing deal will take effort to resolve.

From France’s perspective, an ‘abrupt’ announcement on September 16 that the Australian government had completely changed its mind over a deal that would see France build 12 diesel-powered submarines was a blindside that did more than merely tear up a commercial contract.

“Confronted with the high uncertainties […] surrounding the likely closure of an alternative (AUKUS) deal, it was necessary to keep the possibility to continue the future submarine program [with France],” Thebault told the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.

“And so it was mandatory to keep us in the dark or on the back burner. The deceit was intentional.”

As recently as the end of August, when foreign affairs and defence ministers from France and Australia met for a 2+2 dialogue, Thebault said a joint communique was published that underlined the importance of the future submarine program

Then, in mid-September, the Australian prime minister announced that the government had instead chosen to peg its naval capabilities — and maritime security in the Indo Pacific — on a new nuclear fleet of submarines as the first initiative under a new AUKUS trilateral pact with the US and UK.

“One can always try to tell afterwards that we should have understood by ourselves that some ambiguous Australian government attitudes should have made us realise,” Thebault told the press club, adding that it seemed Morrison wanted his French counterparts to foresee the end of the deal by reading ‘coffee grounds’.

The ambassador went on to suggest that with hindsight, France viewed a sustained ‘smear campaign’ about the Attack-class submarines program to have been deliberately orchestrated by the Australian government. For years, he said false claims about the program were being reported in the Australian media that its budget had blown out, with a view to ‘sabotaging’ public support or the standing of the manufacturing program.

“Some say the program had few friends. What is sure is that a lot was [done to ensure] that it would have less [friends], including by allowing, and I quote, ‘a largely inaccurate public discussion to happen, unchallenged’,” Thebault said.

Defending Australia’s decision to tear up the agreement with France, Morrison told reporters from Glasgow early this week that he had concerns about delays, Australian content and costs associated with the French submarine program. 

Speaking from Canberra on Wednesday, Thebault hit back, saying it was a fiction to challenge the Naval Group’s ‘impeccable commitment’ to the submarine deal. He quoted a recent submission made by Australian Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty to senate estimates that media commentary about the Attack-class submarines were largely inaccurate.

“[Moriarty] added the total estimated cost of the program was ‘the same estimate that we took to government in 2016’, and squarely concluded there was no cost to blow out,” Thebault said.

“The budget of the program was exactly the same as it was on the day that the contract was signed. It was within the $50 billion in-constant dollars. The program was acceptable, affordable and compliant.”

“When some still try to throw mud at it, in an attempt to justify themselves, [this] is an equivocal precise statement, made in front of parliament with all the celebrity it supposes, [and] vindicates the reputation of the program,” he said. 

A bad strategy

France’s ambassador to Australia is a seasoned diplomat, having served as his country’s ambassador to Ireland, consul-general to Hong Kong, and an advisor to the cabinet of the French prime minister in the early 1990s. He said France’s submarine building contract with Australia, entered into by then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, represented a common agreement on sovereignty and involved the exchange of highly-classified defence intelligence.

“The way [this] was handled was plainly a stab in the back,” Thebault said.

“It was […] because of our shared history, because we are two neighbouring Indo Pacific nations sharing the same challenge, that France answered the call of Australia when it wanted to build a sovereign industry. This was at the core of our alliance as inked in 2017.

“The way this Australian government decided to turn its back on our solemn and far-reaching partnership, without ever frankly consulting with France when there were countless opportunities, without having shared [the Australian view] frankly and openly or without having looked for alternatives with France, is just out of this world,” he added. 

According to Thebault, the initial agreement entered into under Turnbull and French prime minister Emmanuel Macron’s stewardship five years ago, was on the basis of ‘solemn promises and acts’ to develop a strategic approach to the Indo Pacific region for the next 50 years. 

“What after such events, can any partner of Australia now think is the value of Australia’s signature and commitment?” Thebault asked.

“Alarm bells should have rung to the likely consequences (of the decision to scratch the submarine agreement), and if it was the case that they did ring, and they were disregarded, it’s even worse.”

From a capability perspective, Thebault also warned the Australian government that its decision to scrap the Attack-class submarines deal entirely in favour of the US nuclear boats would mean a significant period of time without extra submarines. This would not only impact Australia’s maritime security capabilities but also result in a waste of tax-payer money for incomplete boats, and lost local jobs, he argued. 

“The Australian government is abandoning a solid cooperation with well established parameters for a yet unspecified project, without even a solid transition – a mere project of a project,” Thebault said of the AUKUS submarines deal.

“It [also] appears that there will be a capacity gap maybe of up to 20 years, when the future submarine program would have delivered its first submarine, fully made in Australia, in the early to 2030s.

“Several would have been produced before the first eventual new-type of submarine [is expected to] have been produced.”

Responding to questions from journalists during a press conference in Dubai on Wednesday, Morrison said that Australia’s decision not to proceed with the Attack-class submarines in favour of US nuclear-powered submarines was made in the national interest. He made clear that he was not going to apologise to the French prime minister over the diplomatic rift. 

“Those who objected to that decision have objected for very obvious reasons with very obvious motives. But I know whose side I’m on,” the PM said.

“Australia made the decision not to go ahead with a contract for a submarine that was not going to do the job that Australia needed it to do, and I’ll never make any apologies for that decision.

“I’m going to move on and get the job done,” he said.

In France’s view, even Australian security experts are concerned about the sensibility about how much more cost-effective the new submarines endeavour will be, and whether the local infrastructure and skill exists to maintain the new fleet. Australian apprentices, large companies and SMEs who had pinned their hopes on participating in the French submarine program had also been let down, he said. 

“Conducting a nuclear submarine program and maintaining it requires specific infrastructures and skills. It represents a daunting challenge in terms of material, regulatory and human investment. A very steep learning curve,” the ambassador said. 

“Let’s be clear — even if it was prepared in a clumsy manner, we wish well to the new program.

“Good luck.”

Thebault confirmed that he had spoken with Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne on Monday, and expressed hope that moving forward shared values such as tackling climate change, presented future opportunities to mend the relationship between the two governments. 

“It is now up to the Australian government to propose tangible actions that embodies the political will of Australia,Thebault said. 


READ MORE:

France’s ambassador says ‘every commitment’ with Australia under inspection

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