ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly - 04/11/2021

04 November 2021

SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison accused of lying to the French; leaked text messages; damage to Australia’s reputation.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: We have been seeking an interview all week with the Foreign Minister Marise Payne but she's unavailable. We're joined now, instead, by the Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Penny Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: 'A stab in the back', 'intentional deceit', 'an unprecedented new low', 'a betrayal that was out of this world' - are the French protesting too much?

WONG: I think what's happened is that Mr Morrison's character has been on show and we're seeing the consequences to Australia's interests, and international standing as a consequence. His character is one of somebody, frankly, who's dishonest. Someone whose reflex is spin rather than sincerity - you know, always reaches for background and leaking. And someone who is stubborn - stubbornly refuses to say, yes, we could have handled this better.

And they're really two things which stand out this week. And they go to our relationships first with the United States and secondly, our relationship with France. We saw President Biden's public comments sought to be undermined by someone providing an American National Security Council document to a journalist - an extraordinary act against an ally. And secondly, a text message between two leaders leaked. Now, if I had done that to you Fran, if I had leaked a personal text message, you wouldn't trust me again. And neither would anyone who knew that I'd done that. And the problem is by behaving as he so often does - refusing to take responsibility, refusing to acknowledge he could have done better - Mr Morrison has not only made himself more untrustworthy, he's put in Australia in a very bad position, in a dire position, all because he doesn't want to take responsibility for his behaviour.

KELLY: The Prime Minister's not confirming where that leak came from. But you're right, that's where the French fury has shifted. Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, though, has pretty much confirmed it. Let's have a listen:

AUDIO OF BARNABY JOYCE: It's not as extraordinary as calling someone, another leader of another country a liar when they're not. You can't just go around calling people liars. And if you're the President of Blop Blop, who cares, the President of France can't walk around calling people liars.

KELLY: That's Barnaby Joyce on RN Drive last night. So, I mean, basically his premise is if you're called a liar by a world leader, you have to pull out all stops to refute it when you believe it's not true. In other words, he says, implying Scott Morrison had no option and every right to defend himself against this slur on his honesty and integrity and that included, if it takes, putting out a text message that shows the proof, so be it. What do you think of that?

WONG: But it's not about Scott Morrison. It's about the country. We have a reputation as a country for being straight shooters. We have a reputation as Australians of doing what we say and pulling our weight. That's been our reputation internationally under governments of both parties. And that's a reputation that because of his personal character, Mr Morrison is trashing. I mean, he is doing to the French President, what he sought to do to the Premiers; have a stoush instead of trying to resolve matters.

Now ultimately, this is a decision that the Government took and we backed in the national interest, that is to move down the path of nuclear-propelled submarines. That's a big decision and it was always going to be difficult to manage with the French. But the job of the leader of the country is not to behave in this way, by being prepared to trash the country's reputation for being a straight shooter, it's to deal with the inevitable negative response of the French in a mature and responsible way. I mean, this is really, it's vandalism, it is vandalism. The way in which this has been dealt with by the Government is with a wanton disregard for our international reputation, and for a relationship with a country. And they like to dismiss France, but France is a major power. It is a country that has Indo Pacific territories. President Macron, France will be President of the EU next year. They are an important player. And we need more partners and more friends, not fewer. And our leader, our Prime Minister, is behaving in a way that makes it more difficult for people to trust him, and by that the country.

KELLY: Yes, but if Australia's national security is at the heart of this, which is what the Prime Minister says, I mean, we've got the French Ambassador now saying he can give several examples of how President Macron was lied to. The French President says Scott Morrison lied to him. Malcolm Turnbull, former Prime Minister, says Scott Morrison has lied to him on many occasions. You've gone straight there to the character issue. But Labor did support this switching, in the national interest, to the nuclear subs. And Labor has also raised issue with the French contract on the subs before in the parliament. So, do you think Scott Morrison lied to the to the French President? Or do you think Scott Morrison had problems with the subs contracts - problems that Labor and others have identified - and, you know, took steps to break the contract? What do you think happened there?

WONG: There are two different issues here. One is, what decisions a government should make about capability. And I've said on this program that we found the capability argument for going down this path compelling. But this is not about that. And I know Mr Morrison wants to - as he always does - construct a different fight. He says he's trying to suggest the French are sledging Australia. They're not. They're sledging him, they're criticising him. And this is all about his character, which is actually the issue on display. And what he continues to demonstrate is the sort of character Australians have come to see. So, you asked me, what do I think? Do I think he lies? Well, I remember him saying, we're at the front of the queue. And that wasn't true. I remember him making a mistake over foreign policy where he said 'one country, two systems' applied to Taiwan, which was not true and then denied saying it despite the fact he was on camera. The problem is, this man's character - which Malcolm Turnbull, I think, has witheringly assessed from his own experience - is on display internationally. And that is a problem because it's undermining the country's reputation.

You don't make a country more secure by demonstrating that you're prepared to damage at any cost, damage partnerships and alliances. We've seen a leader who did that Fran, and that person was Donald Trump.’

KELLY: Are you comparing Scott Morrison's behaviour to Donald Trump?

WONG: I am simply saying that we have seen in recent times, a leader who was prepared to damage alliances and partnerships - and that was Donald Trump. And we are seeing Mr Morrison being prepared to damage relationships, in the way I've described, by the provision of information which is in his possession, because he doesn't want to acknowledge that he's done anything wrong. Wouldn't it have been easier, even if he didn't agree, wouldn't it have been easier to say, look, I understand that the French are very disappointed, I accept - this is what President Biden did - I accept we could have handled this differently...

KELLY: Well President Biden kind of dumped Australia in it.

WONG: Wouldn't it have been easier if we had just done that? And instead, he's furiously bunkered down and gone to attacking President Macron. How is that in our interests?

KELLY: Well, the Prime Minister is citing the national interest. He says the AUKUS agreement, which will deliver the nuclear subs...

WONG: That is not the point, Fran.

KELLY: Well, let me just... he's reduced it down to and I'm quoting him here, "I know what side I'm on. I'll never make any apologies for that decision." Won't voters look and see a Prime Minister who's citing the national interest - and the Opposition that backed him in that policy move - standing up against a French president who's, you know, making all sorts of very undiplomatic allegations against the Prime Minister and Labor is backing them? Are you worried about Labor backing the wrong guy here, in this fight? As it goes on?

WONG: Do you know whose side Scott Morrison is on? His own. He's on his own side. And that's what we see in his behaviour domestically. And it is what we see in his behaviour over this last week.

KELLY: The French Ambassador - just to take it beyond the subs, and the sort of the name calling at the moment, well, we're getting back to the name calling actually - he's taking this beyond the submarine issue. He's warning, at the Press Club yesterday, that the EU Free Trade Agreement, which is currently being negotiated, could be caught in the crossfire. He says other European countries will question "the quality of Australia's signature". Should Australia be concerned about that, do you think? The Prime Minister said again yesterday he's got good relationships with other European leaders. But are you worried that France could actively try and sabotage the free trade deal?

WONG: Well, I think, rather than just pointing the finger at the French, perhaps it would be useful if Mr Morrison could reflect on his own behaviour. The problem is, he's just never prepared to do that. There are always consequences to trashing relationships. And in a world, as we are in, where the world is a more uncertain and riskier place, one thing we all understand is those nations who are supportive of a rules-based order, who are supportive of democratic principles, who are supportive of a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific in which sovereignty is respected, we have to work together. And France's is one of those nations. So, the problem here is Mr Morrison because of his personal character, he has been found out. He's been demonstrated to be untrustworthy. Instead of trying to deal with a difficult situation, he has just been prepared to damage the relationship not only with France, but to say to the world, if you have a conversation with me privately, I'm prepared, if it's in my personal political interest - personal political interests, not the nation's - to make that public. I mean as it was, I don't actually think the content of the text message he's leaked, does anything other than demonstrate that the French were not aware, to the extent that he says they were. I think it actually demonstrates that he isn't telling the full truth.

KELLY: Senator Wong, thanks for joining us.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.