Having endured a shocking shellacking over the last few days, Scott Morrison declared at a news conference en route for home that “it’s important now that we all just move on”.
Easier said than done, when the French have just delivered another blast at your integrity, via their ambassador’s uncompromising speech at the National Press Club, Malcolm Turnbull has branded you a well-known liar, and your week away has been a clear net negative.
But one thing we can bank on. Morrison will jut out his jaw and plough ahead. This prime minister has the thickest of political skins, and he is facing the fight of his life in a few months.
He showed again in his Wednesday remarks to the travelling media that he will admit no mistakes or miscalculations in his dealings with the French, even in relation to the leaking of a text Emmanuel Macron sent him just prior to the cancellation of the French submarine contract.
In the message, two days before the announcement, Macros asked: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?” The text was put out to reinforce Morrison’s argument that the French knew the contract was on life support. (The French suggest it showed the opposite.)
Disclosure of another leader’s private communication is hardly the done thing diplomatically. But Morrison isn’t fussed by such niceties and was unrepentant when pressed about it.
“Claims had been made and those claims were refuted, ” he said bluntly.
“What is needed now is for us to all just get on with it. I mean, that’s what is most important to the Australian people. That the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia get on with the historic agreement that we came to, to deliver an incredibly important capability for Australia, to keep Australians safe and to defend and protect Australia.”
Asked what he was going to do to try to repair the rift with France Morrison said “I’m going to move on and get the job done”.
In his Wednesday speech, ambassador Jean-Pierre Thébault emphasised the depth of the partnership between the two countries that had been represented by the now aborted submarine deal, arguing it went well beyond a commercial contract, including the provision of highly sensitive technology.
He repeated the earlier French line that the Australian action had been “a stab in the back” to France, and pointed to recent evidence by Australian departmental and military figures to Senate estimates that rejected widespread media reports the project had run off the rails with big cost overruns.
Thébault suggested, indeed, that dark arts had been at work.
“We had questioned the Australian government several times over the years about the false or misleading allegations which were regularly made, with scarce official reaction. We were told that such things ‘do occur in Australia’, are ‘normal’, ‘do go away’ and ‘have to be managed solely by Defence’.
"But in light of the subsequent events, the question now arises legitimately: why was it impossible earlier to state the naked truth, as was done just some days ago, on record, during Senate estimates? This would have set the record straight and stopped the smear campaign,” Thébault said.
“In retrospect, knowing what we know for sure today, about the relentless conduct in parallel of an alternative plan, some had a direct interest to sabotage the public support and understanding for the Attack class program,” he said.
“The Attack class program, despite the allegations made in this intensive smearing campaign, was in fact not at all a ‘troubled’ program.
"The Attack class program has been intentionally vilified to become an easy scapegoat, to justify a change of footing that was long time in the making,” the ambassador claimed.
How much more damage the French can do Australia remains to be seen, especially as France takes over the presidency of the Council of the EU in January. The French say it is up to the Australian government to come up with “substantial proposals” to repair the relationship but it is hard to see it mending for a long time, and probably never with Morrison.
It would be interesting to see if tensions would ease at all if there were a change of government, given that Labor, while strongly criticising Morrison’s handling of the French, has supported the AUKUS agreement and said Australia was within its rights to cancel the contract.
Morrison would reckon that in terms of domestic politics, the rapidly moving news cycle will relatively quickly overtake the publicity around the French onslaught.
As for Turnbull’s attack, he will hope the public put that into the context of the former PM having become one of his harshest and most constant critics.
When he’s back on Australian soil, Morrison can be expected to deploy two tactics.
Insisting he’s now fully explained what happened with the French, he is likely to try to shut down further questioning on the matter as much as he can.
And he will play up his portrayal of himself as doing whatever is necessary as the custodian of the security of Australians.
That’s the essence of the “moving on” strategy.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra