An extraordinary political moment that is dangerous for Morrison

There is no parallel in recent memory for the moment when French President Emmanuel Macron called Scott Morrison a liar.

Macron was asked a direct question about his talks with the Prime Minister before the sudden termination of a submarine contract worth $90 billion for the French defence industry.

“Do you think he lied to you?” asked Bevan Shields of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“I don’t think, I know,” said Macron.

It is an extraordinary political moment. And extremely dangerous for Morrison.

Those five words will be replayed by Morrison’s opponents all the way to election day. It is diabolical for the Prime Minister when trust is central to any campaign.

Macron was not caught off guard. He did not snap under pressure. There was a flicker of a smile after he spoke. He knew what he was doing.

In fact, he spoke for several minutes with journalists about the long alliance between Australia and France. He put the rift with Morrison in a historical context.

Australia’s relationship with France, a longstanding friend and a nuclear power, is in even deeper trouble than it looked – and the United States and the United Kingdom are caught in the conflict. They signed up to the AUKUS alliance on the day the French deal was sunk.

The French were infuriated when they saw reports that Morrison had been thinking about the nuclear submarine deal for months. That meant Morrison was thinking of cancelling the French contract when he met Macron in Paris in early June and the pair hugged at the Elysee Palace.

So did he lie? Morrison rejected that charge within about 20 minutes of the French President’s remarks. He said he told Macron the French submarines were not going to suit Australia.

“I was very clear that the conventional submarines were not going to be able to meet our strategic interests,” he said.

Did he talk to Macron about buying French nuclear submarines instead? He would not say. Did he tell Macron that Australia was thinking of nuclear submarines from the US or UK? No. Why not? Because it was confidential.

Morrison argued he could not confide in Macron about such a sensitive move.

“This was not something you go around having broad conversations about,” he said.

Yet France is a NATO power and an Australian ally.

No other witnesses can shed light on all of this. It is about the two leaders. Some of their discussions were held over a private dinner in the Elysee Palace in June. It is one man’s word against another’s.

One weakness in Morrison’s argument is that he suggests he could not trust Macron with a frank discussion about Australia’s search for alternatives. Morrison acknowledges he withheld this information from Macron.

Another problem is the admission from US President Joe Biden about the “clumsy” handling of the matter when AUKUS was announced on September 15. That reflected on Australia.

Australia has seen arguments between leaders before. Paul Keating called Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohommed a “recalcitrant” and the fury in Malaysia lasted for years. But that was not like this. The argument with Macron is about a lot more than a word. And Macron is a lot more powerful than Mahathir was.

Up to this moment, Morrison has responded to the rift with France with attempts to control the damage. Now the damage looks uncontrollable. It is no longer about submarines alone, nor the relationship with France alone or the alliance with the US and the UK.

It is also about the Prime Minister’s credibility. Can he be trusted? Can he be believed? Labor leader Anthony Albanese has claimed for years that Morrison repeatedly misleads Australians. Now he has the assessment from Macron to back him up.

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