Scott Morrison’s three ring circus last week unveiling an awkwardly named pact with the United States and Britain, at the expense of France, isn’t looking quite like the winner he had hoped.
The greatest collateral damage of AUKUS is to the Prime Minister’s personal credibility.
It provided further evidence with this Prime Minister that what he says cannot be taken at face value and when it suits him, he will set out to deceive.
There’s not much doubt French strategic co-operation in the Indo-Pacific has taken a hit and Australia’s economic interests with Europe are damaged, but the whole saga has more immediate domestic consequences for the Morrison government.
It was put succinctly in the letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday: “If Morrison can deceive the French, why not us?”
The best that can be said of Australia’s provocative and devious behaviour towards France in scrapping the multibillion-dollar submarine contract is that it was telling white lies.
Before he departed for meetings with his co-conspirator in the deception of the French, US President Joe Biden, Mr Morrison was defiant, brushing aside the trenchant criticism coming from Paris.
“I don’t regret the decision to put Australia’s national interest first. Never will. Thank you,” Mr Morrison said.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, ironically from Adelaide where the subs were to be built, tried to claim that Australia made the new deal available at “the earliest available opportunity” because of the enormous sensitivities.
This from the governing Liberal Party that had required the French to convert their nuclear-propelled Barracuda submarines into diesel-electric propulsion on the premise that best suited our purposes.
Five years later this was turned on its head, but the French insist they were never told nor given the opportunity to regroup despite Australia claiming it has not decided which type of nuclear submarine it will now buy.
Whatever it is, it won’t be French; no wonder we were aware of “enormous sensitivities”.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton says Paris should have got the message from the anxious discussions about delays, cost overruns and design, but the French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault insists the prospect of scrapping it was never raised.
Indeed in June, Mr Morrison after being feted by President Macron at the Elysée Palace, said he had had “a very positive discussion”.
The ambassador’s boss, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, accused Australia of “lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt”.
The French disgust was reinforced with the recall of their ambassadors not only from Canberra but for the first time since the American War of Independence in the late 18th century, also from Washington.
According to the New York Times, the Biden administration is now regretting that it left it up to the Morrison government to do the squaring off with Paris.
A phone call the night before a massive “stab in the back” simply exposes not only Australian duplicity but gross diplomatic incompetence.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan has been dispatched to try and salvage the long-negotiated free trade deal with the European Union, which the French are now sending very negative signals about.
Mr Morrison may well have given them the excuse not to upset their own farmers with unwelcome concessions to our primary producers.
Suggestions that Australia will buy time till the French presidential elections are held in April will do nothing to endear us with the jilted Macron government.
If Mr Morrison was hoping the TV pictures of him at the deal announcement being given equal status with Boris Johnson and Joe Biden would lift his stocks, the latest Newspoll suggests otherwise; it barely shifted, keeping Labor in a comfortable leading position 53 to 47 per cent.
The Prime Minister’s handling of Christian Porter’s anonymous donations may bear some of the blame for the result where Mr Morrison couldn’t be straight with the Australian public.
When asked if he knew how much money Mr Porter was paid, Mr Morrison wrongly claimed it was included in his Register of Interests.
Mr Morrison went to great lengths to avoid taking credit or responsibility for his former attorney-general and Industry Minister’s failure to uphold high ministerial standards.
He even claimed Mr Porter’s resignation was his own idea and was upholding those standards.
The minister had to quit because he refused to uphold the standards of accountability and transparency required, something he is still doing as a humble member of Parliament.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says Labor will move in Parliament for Mr Porter to give the money back and declare where it came from, hiding behind a “blind trust” doesn’t cut it.
Trying to mislead the Australian people that it does comply with the standards is of a piece with assuring the French their $90 billion submarine contract was on track.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics