Emmanuel Macron’s comments go to the heart of the problem of our new submarine pact

Emmanuel Macron’s accusation that Prime Minister Scott Morrison lied to him is an escalation of a bad diplomatic spat, but the French President also pointed out something that is much more important.

Australia does not have a plan to build new nuclear-powered submarines – it has a plan to conduct an 18-month review.

Emmanuel Macron accused Scott Morrison of lying to him.Credit:Stephen Kripilis

Australia is facing a looming capability gap because our existing Collins-class submarines will be well and truly due for retirement in the late 2030s, potentially years before the nuclear submarines are ready for operation. And we do not yet have a plan to deal with that.

Macron’s accusation that Morrison lied to him, on the closing day of the G20 summit in Rome, suggests the fallout from Australia’s decision to dump the $90 billion submarine agreement with France is far from over.

The French leader says he was blindsided by the federal government’s decision to scrap the agreement and instead build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with the help of Britain and the United States under a new agreement called AUKUS.

Morrison denied lying to Macron, saying he had been clear with the French President when the pair met in Paris in June that “conventional submarines were not going to be able to meet our strategic interests and we were going to have to make a decision in our national interest”.

Without going into who is telling the truth, the public record suggests Australia was less than truthful with France.

Just 17 days before the AUKUS announcement, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton met with their French counterparts, releasing a joint communique which “underlined the importance of the Future Submarine program”.

A program that was “not going to be able to meet our strategic interests” cannot be held up as “important”. If not a lie, that statement was awfully close to one.

Some senior officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade now concede it was a mistake to lead the French on in this meeting, less than a month before scrapping the project.

US President Joe Biden over the weekend told Macron the handling of the announcement was “clumsy”.

Morrison and senior figures in the government still do not think the situation could have been better handled.

Yes, some of Macron’s reaction can be viewed in the context of the upcoming French election – he is also picking a fight with Britain over a lack of post-Brexit fishing licences granted to French fishing boats and with Mali over a military coup in the African country.

The French are angry not just about the decision but also about the way the announcement was made and how the relationship is being managed.

Witness Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s comments on Monday morning.

“We didn’t steal an island. We didn’t deface the Eiffel Tower. It was a contract,” he said.

An excuse regularly trotted out by figures within the federal government is that the “French were always going to be angry” at the decision. Morrison reflected this in Rome when he said “of course it has caused disappointment” but the “decision my government has taken was in Australia’s interest”.

Good diplomacy is about mitigating the level of disappointment. The management of national security does not merely involve making the correct defence capability decision, and letting the diplomatic consequences fall where they may.

The decision to dump the French contract and build nuclear-powered submarines using British and American technology may turn out to be the right one. The goal of acquiring nuclear submarines – which can go faster, stay underwater for longer, and go deeper into the region – is difficult to argue against considering the current trajectory of tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

But recent evidence given by Defence officials at parliamentary hearings reveals we need much more information on when the submarines will arrive, and how we will avoid the capability gap.

The first nuclear submarine may not be operational until well into the 2040s. The first French boat was supposed to be ready by 2034.

Macron alluded to this when he mocked Australia’s 18-month review into how it will acquire the nuclear submarines.

“You have 18 months before a report. Good luck,” he said.

In the absence of deft diplomacy, we are going to need it.

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