Opinion Zoe Daniel: With our trust stretched, we’re in a vortex of ‘who knew what, when?’
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Zoe Daniel: With our trust stretched, we’re in a vortex of ‘who knew what, when?’

Scott Morrison and Zoe Daniel
The world is moving forward on COVID, but Australia is mired in small-minded debate, writes Zoe Daniel. Photo: AAP/TND
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Trust is a precious and increasingly rare thing.

Information manipulation, abuse of power and a widening divide between the haves and the have-nots the world over have all eroded trust, in media, in business, in government, in leadership.

In the process, paradoxically, boundaries have become increasingly elastic, as those with power seek to test them even further.

Gaffes that would not have been tolerated before are now absorbed into the 24-hour news cycle, and accepted norms of political behaviour have changed.

Donald Trump pioneered this behaviour at home and abroad, and lately, we’ve seen it spill out of the domestic realm and into international relations and diplomacy again, amid deal making over submarines with two of Australia’s biggest allies.

Now, we’re in a vortex of ‘who knew what, when?’

In this black hole are at least three world leaders – Scott Morrison, Emanuel Macron and Joe Biden, all of whom are telling slightly different versions of the same story.

In doing so, all three are stretching the boundaries of both public trust and key geopolitical relationships between allies who are supposed to have each other’s backs.

While the French President, plainly furious at the broken promise that led to the loss of the sub deal to the US, has all but accused the Australian Prime Minister of lying about it, the US President didn’t hesitate to throw Scott Morrison under a bus with some old-fashioned damage control.

“I think, what happened was to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy,” Mr Biden said, adding the deal “was not done with a lot of grace”.

“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before.”

In other words, we thought you knew!

Darn sneaky double-crossing Aussies, and this from Australia’s strongest ally on the globe.

Back home, the situation has triggered the Labor opposition, which has accused the Australian government of “vandalism”.

“The way in which this has been dealt with by the government is with a wanton disregard for our international reputation,” says shadow minister for foreign affairs Penny Wong.

That’s true in some ways, although others might read it as pragmatism to divert to a preferred deal with better outcomes. (Whether the sub deal delivers on that premise is highly questionable, however.)

Meanwhile Australia leaked the Prime Minister’s private text messages with President Macron to try to prove the French knew. The French ambassador to Australia described this as “an unprecedented new low”.

“Doing so also sends a very worrying signal. For all heads of state – be aware, in Australia, there will be leaks,” the ambassador told the National Press Club.

‘Confidence has been shattered’

“Confidence has been completely shattered,” a close adviser to President Macron told the French press.

“Disclosing a text message exchange between heads of state or government is a pretty crude and unconventional tactic.”

Unconventional, yes, but not unprecedented. Leaking such messages is also straight out of the Trump playbook.

Remember when those transcripts of a tough-talking Trump in conversation with Malcolm Turnbull over refugees came out?

Trump stood to gain with his base by showing himself to be a tough guy, although in the end it also helped Turnbull because he was seen to have stood his ground.

Leaking the texts creates a similar double-edged sword.

Such point scoring further fragments trust. It also dilutes the delicate perception of authority by revealing the fact that world leaders are discussing multi-billion-dollar taxpayer funded deals via SMS.

“What else do you do? It either stands that you are a liar, or you defend your position and say you are not,” Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce said of the leaked messages.

Sure. Or you respect the confidentiality of the relationship to enable frank conversation free of concern that it will end up on the front page of the newspaper.

But again, we are in an era of elastic boundaries, ones that Mr Joyce has himself tested very well.

All of this played out against the backdrop of the long awaited COP26 of course, at which the PM said that Australia is forecast to cut emissions by 35 per cent by 2030. That’s largely off the back of state climate policies, with no change to federal targets set in 2015.

It’s also not mandated, so it’s just a promise.

Do you trust it?