The only mistake Scott Morrison has made in the way he’s handled the French submarine contract is that he should have cancelled it sooner.
It’s been obvious for years even to those with absolutely no expertise in the examination of the minutiae of $90 billion defence contracts that the deal was a dud. The government spending $250,000 of taxpayers’ money on legal fees in a fight to keep secret the cost to taxpayers of the largest defence procurement in the nation’s history did little to inspire confidence that anyone involved in the project knew what they were doing.
If there was one thing Morrison could have done differently it would have been to announce that, in addition to buying nuclear-powered submarines, to meet its net zero by 2050 emissions target, Australia would start nuclear energy to generate electricity. Maybe that still might happen and the Prime Minister is saving that announcement for the election campaign. (Which is what more than a few people in the Labor Party fear. According to the Resolve Political Monitor poll from September, 51 per cent of Australians either support or would accept nuclear power, 29 per cent were opposed, and 20 per cent were undecided.)
The story of the French submarines is not about Morrison and the Coalition. Cancelling a defence contract this big was always going to have consequences, especially when a petulant, Anglosphere-distrusting/disliking French President facing a national election next year was involved.
The French President calling the Australian Prime Minister is a “liar” is as much about Brexit as it is submarines. If the Prime Minister’s office did indeed release the text of an exchange between Morrison and Emmanuel Macron it was absolutely entitled to do so.
Rather, the real story of the cancellation of the submarine contract is Labor’s reaction to it and how the national media have reported on the story. (What Malcolm Turnbull has said about it is irrelevant, because it’s been obvious for some time that no matter what side the Liberal Party is on Turnbull will be on the other.)
In a world of hyper-partisanship, it made be old-fashioned, even quaint to say so, but some things should not be the subject of cheap political point-scoring, and defence in general, and the submarine contract in particular, are in that category.
Labor’s leader Anthony Albanese, and its foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong have succeeded in making Macron look reasonable. Albanese, taking his cue from the language of TikTok, accused Morrison of “gaslighting” France, while Wong claimed the PM had engaged in ‘vandalism’. Both might argue they were merely referring to the way Morrison responded to Macron, but instead it looked like they were taking sides.
Labor’s climate change spokesman, Chris Bowen went so far as to suggest his party’s support for Macron against Morrison was somehow in Australia’s “national interest”. Other than offering platitudes about the need for “trust” between friendly countries, the ALP hasn’t said how it would have cancelled the submarine contract in any different way from how it was done by the Coalition.
The treatment by most of the media of what’s occurred in the past week between France and Australia has been entirely superficial. Rushing for a quote from Kevin Rudd or Turnbull is easier than undertaking deep analysis. Meanwhile, the central question of what will best improve the country’s capacity to defend itself has been entirely lost in the desire of journalists to celebrate a “gotcha” comment from a spurned French President.
There’s a lack of seriousness in much of the mainstream media in this country about defence policy and international affairs. Commentary on foreign relations in the media in Australia is either sophisticated and well-informed or reduced to a “he said, she said” caricature of journalism – as has happened this week.
Labor’s political calculation is there are benefits to complaining about the PM’s character, because that’s what its focus groups say it should say. However, Labor might have forgotten that in a diplomatic spat between two national leaders, the Australian public will probably back the Australian.
Morrison can sometimes be glib, but he wasn’t wrong when he said about all of this, “I know whose side I’m on”.