Prime Minister Scott Morrison has cut a lonely figure at the G20 in Rome, with most leaders apparently unwilling to publicly engage with him.
In a clumsy attempt to connect with French President Emmanuel Macron, with whom relations are exceedingly chilly owing to the messy cancellation of a $90 billion submarine contract, Morrison resorted to his “hands-on intrusion into personal space” method. This “touching without consent” model is familiar to Australians after his 2020 visit to the fire-damaged town of Cobargo, on the NSW south coast, where Morrison was filmed attempting to persuade reluctant survivors to shake his hand.
Morrison first slapped an unprepared Macron on the shoulder and then, in his own words:
‘“I said g‘day,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Rome.
“He was having a chat to someone, I went up and just put my arm on his shoulder and just said “g’day, Emmanuel” and “look forward to catching up over the next couple of days.”
“That’s the way these events tend to work and he was happy to exchange those greetings.”’
President Macron responded with a death stare that put anything we saw from former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to shame.
Only hours later, Macron put paid to Morrison’s optimism by declaring that the Australian Prime Minister is a liar. “I don’t think [he lied], I know,” declared the French President, whose feelings on the cancellation of the contract clearly run as deep as his rejected submarines.
It is rather remarkable for a head of state to publicly declare one of their peers a liar, particularly at a global conference with co-operation as its goal. I don’t recall anyone being so publicly frank about former U.S. President Donald Trump, for example. Mr Morrison keeps on achieving in the most unexpected ways.
The Prime Minister responded swiftly in an interview with friendly Australian Financial Review journalist Phillip Coorey (paywalled). In a spectacular example of gaslighting, one of Morrison’s few undeniable talents, he stated that in June this year he had given Monsieur Macron “inklings” that were sufficient, in his view, for the President to take the hint that the massive contract was about to be terminated.
If Monsieur Macron did not understand those inklings and realise they were a hint, then Monsieur Macron has only himself to blame, suggests Morrison, and it is quite scurrilous for him to accuse the Prime Minister of lying about the matter.
In Morrison’s world, it is apparently not necessary to be straightforward about the cancellation of a $90 billion contract. An inkling and a hint suffice. If Macron didn’t get it, well, that’s on him.
Morrison also explained that the non-nuclear French subs Australia ordered were no longer adequate for Australia’s needs:
This must have puzzled Macron, given that Australia requested that the Barracuda nuclear submarines be adapted to a diesel-electric version in the first place.
Morrison is now pursuing his interest in nuclear submarines provided by the U.S. and the UK under the new AUKUS agreement but as Macron was at pains to point out, this is not yet a deal in any sense of the word and Australia is decades away from securing submarines of any kind.
Indeed, there is first an 18-month consultation to ascertain which submarines are best suited to Australia’s needs before any deal is on the table. Macron, perhaps understandably, seems somewhat gratified by this delay.
Morrison is now displaying on a global stage the mendacity and obfuscation he daily employs domestically. Unlike at home, thanks to Australia’s largely compliant media, Morrison is exposed to considerable international criticism, including from U.S. President Joe Biden, who has taken great pains to distance himself from Morrison while simultaneously repairing damaged relations with Macron over the submarine deal.
Biden is insistent that he believed Morrison had informed Macron of his decision to terminate the contract and describes the matter as having been handled clumsily and without grace:
‘“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before, that the [French] deal was not going through,” [Biden] said, which suggests either his staff failed to inform him, or Australia misled the White House about what it had told the French.’
Morrison increasingly appears to be one of those people who creates trouble and strife wherever they go, the kind of person you avoid if possible because you know he’ll leave turmoil in his wake and involve you in it, somehow.
The renewed affection between Macron and Biden leaves Morrison conspicuously out in the cold, blamed by both leaders for his underhand and mendacious conduct.
Morrison also got a cool reception at the G20 from his former Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, which seems particularly harsh given the vast amounts of public money Morrison lavished on Cormann’s eventually successful efforts to get the top gig at the OECD. As Morrison wanders about, lonely as a cloud, seeking his place on the podium for the G20 family photo, vision shows Cormann apparently avoiding a handshake or indeed any connection at all with his former backer.
All in all, things are not going well for Scott Morrison so far. It’s difficult to see how they can improve at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference this week, given Morrison’s obdurate refusal to take anything more than a discredited glossy pamphlet and an equally discredited Minister for Energy, Angus Taylor, with him. Minister Taylor has revealed his intention to use his appearance at the conference as an opportunity to flog Australian coal and gas.
We live in interesting times.
Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.
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