Malcolm Turnbull is the latest former prime minister to blast the federal government’s much-maligned handling of the nuclear submarines deal and question the AUKUS pact, scorching Scott Morrison’s conduct as “deceitful” and “blundering”.
The most recent PM joined a chorus of doubters alongside Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating over the Morrison government’s defence agreement, the latest instalment in a furious public tit-for-tat spat between former and current leaders.
“Mr Morrison has not acted in good faith. He deliberately deceived France. He makes no defence of his conduct other than to say it was in Australia’s national interest,” Mr Turnbull told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
“This is an appalling episode in Australia’s international affairs and the consequences of it will endure to our disadvantage for a very long time.”
Mr Turnbull gave a speech to the National Press Club on the nuclear submarine deal and AUKUS agreement, which saw the tearing up of a contract with France’s Naval Group to build 12 conventional submarines.
France accused Australia of a “stab in the back” over keeping the deal secret, withdrawing its ambassador in Canberra and ignoring Mr Morrison’s requests for a phone call.
In a blistering takedown of the man who succeeded him as PM, Mr Turnbull accused Mr Morrison of “extraordinary subterfuge”, a “betrayal of trust” and throwing France “under a bus”.
Despite his criticisms of the government’s approach, Mr Turnbull said he hoped AUKUS would be “a great success”.
Mr Turnbull had previously declined requests for comment on the submarines and the AUKUS pact with the United Kingdom and United States.
A representative for Mr Turnbull told The New Daily on September 16, the day the submarine plan was announced, that he “won’t be making any comments” on the news.
But that silence was spectacularly broken on Wednesday, as Mr Turnbull published an opinion piece in the Nine newspapers in the morning before his lunchtime speech.
In the same newspaper pages, former Labor PM Keating also gave his latest assessments.
He has been a vocal critic of the AUKUS deal since its announcement, and on Wednesday claimed the defence agreement had “turned over control of [Australia’s] armed forces to the US”.
He also believed the AUKUS deal meant Australia was “turning its back” on Asian allies, by reaffirming British and American alliances.
Mr Keating claimed in his opinion piece that the Morrison government had been “naive” and “submissive” in its international affairs, and that the nuclear subs plan was essentially “donating eight submarines paid for by us to the command of the United States”.
In a previous piece, Mr Keating accused Mr Morrison of being “poisonous” toward, and “making an enemy of”, China. His criticisms were swiftly countered by Foreign Minister Marise Payne who, in her opinion piece, again in the Nine papers, said Mr Keating was “wrong” and that the AUKUS deal “doesn’t turn Australia’s back on Asia”.
When asked if he had any response to Mr Keating’s criticisms in Washington last week, Mr Morrison bluntly replied “no”.
Mr Turnbull’s predecessor, Liberal PM Tony Abbott, was far more positive.
In a statement, he called the AUKUS pact “historic and important”.
Writing in The Australian, Mr Abbott said Mr Morrison had shown “leadership of the very highest quality”.
“It is the essence of leadership to discern the circumstances that have propelled a necessary change from being impossible to almost self-evident. All credit to Scott Morrison for seizing this moment,” he wrote.
He called the announcements “momentous”, saying they showed Australia was “a force to be reckoned with”.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Abbott said it elevated Australia to “a much more significant member of the western alliance than ever before”.
Another former Labor PM, Mr Rudd, claimed the government had not explained “why it is technically and strategically necessary to move to nuclear-powered submarines”.
Mr Rudd, who is president of the Asia Society think tank, also accused the government of “deception” over how it treated France.
“I suspect there was a domestic political agenda at play, which was for Scott Morrison to make himself look big, important and hairy-chested in dealing with his domestic Australian political audience on the nature of the China challenge,” Mr Rudd told SBS.
“And he saw the French relationship as expendable.”
In an article submitted to French newspaper Le Monde, Mr Rudd called it an “extraordinary foreign policy debacle”.
On Wednesday, he backed Mr Turnbull’s criticisms in a tweet.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said Labor “welcomed” the new pact, but cautiously laid out several caveats for his support, including that it not include the development of a domestic nuclear industry nor the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
He said the AUKUS pact, linking more closely with British and American defence systems, “makes sense”.
Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, took a more critical tack.
She echoed some of Mr Keating’s concerns, claiming the closer ties with the US raised an “important question here for Australia’s sovereignty”.
“How does the Morrison-Joyce government assure Australians that we can act alone when need be; that we have the autonomy to defend ourselves, however and whenever we need to?” she said in a speech last week.
Mr Morrison accused Labor of having an “each-way bet” on their position – a claim the opposition denied.
The only living prime ministers who haven’t made substantive comments on AUKUS are Liberal John Howard and Labor’s Julia Gillard.
Ms Gillard’s office declined to comment to TND, but pointed toward an interview with HBO’s The Circus this week, where the former PM commented briefly on the AUKUS deal.
“Everyone in the world is trying to work out how to position as China continues to rise, economically, as a military power, and as China goes about its diplomacy with a fair bit of force,” Ms Gillard said.
She claimed China felt “it can take nations on if nations displease it in any way”.