The former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison hid plans to ditch a French submarine contract for fear a furious Paris would find a way to “kill” his new deal with the US and the UK, he reveals in an upcoming book, informs ‘The Guardian’.
The scandal, in which Morrison worked in secret with London and Washington to procure nuclear submarines before breaking the contract with Paris, highlighted the fragility of transatlantic trust, with ties still recovering from the 2021 revelation.
“Our strategy was that if we are going to do this, we can’t let it lead to the French knowing – in case that damages the French deal. So, we had to build Chinese walls – pardon the pun – around our discussions,” Morrison said of the two years of subterfuge.
Morrison was interviewed extensively for a new chapter of the book The Secret History of The Five Eyes by journalist Richard Kerbaj, in which he reveals new details of how he duped Macron, while maintaining that not telling him was “not the same as lying to him”.
Macron was the first foreign leader to congratulate Morrison upon his unexpected election victory in 2019, a sign of the importance of a $36.5bn deal, dubbed the “contract of the century” in which France’s Naval Group would build 12 conventionally powered submarines for Australia.
However, concerned about production delays and a growing security threat from China in the South China Sea, Morrison said he realised that “if there was ever a time to have a crack at getting nuclear-powered subs, it was either now or never”.
And so in late 2019, he set about coming up with what he called a “Plan B” to form an alliance with London and Washington to supply Australia – a non-nuclear state – with nuclear-powered submarines.
“Australian techies were flying back and forth to Washington” in 2020, Morrison said.
He describes how an oblivious Macron approached him to discuss the submarine contract as he emerged from a secret meeting on the new deal with the US president, Joe Biden, and the then British prime minister, Boris Johnson, on the sidelines of a G7 meeting in June 2021.
At a dinner between the two at the Élysée Palace a few days later, Morrison said he was “pretty clear” about his concerns over the submarine deal.
“Not telling him is not the same as lying to him,” he told Kerbaj.
“I think Emmanuel thought I was… seeking leverage on the contract. Maybe he thought I was bluffing,” Morrison said.
A key reason Morrison did not tell Macron about his plans to walk away from the deal was a deep insecurity that, despite a verbal commitment, the US and Britain would pull out of the deal to appease the French.
He told London and Washington he would not give France time to “kill the arrangement that we have with you and then we stand left there with nothing”.
Morrison said it was this potential outcome, and not the Covid-19 pandemic or devastating bushfires, taht gave him the most anxiety during his term.
On the eve of the trilateral AUKUS announcement, he sent a letter to Macron informing him they were terminating the submarine contract, but feared the French president still had time to undermine the new deal.
“I would say it was the most sleepless night I had in my entire prime ministership,” Morrison said, citing the “unpredictability” of the close relationship between Washington and Paris.
“I don’t regret it for a minute,” he said of his decision to break the contract and deceive Paris.
At the time, Paris slammed the revelation as a “stab in the back” and withdrew its ambassador from Australia in protest.