How Scott Morrison’s Cop26 climate show was derailed by Emmanuel Macron and the submarine row

How Scott Morrison’s Cop26 climate show was derailed by Emmanuel Macron and the submarine row

Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy provides a behind-the-scenes account of an extraordinary week travelling with the PM

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Last modified on Sat 6 Nov 2021 01.19 EDT

Scott Morrison’s appearance at the G20 and Cop26 was supposed to be about consolidating the Coalition’s climate pivot before the next election. But the French president, Emmanuel Macron, had other ideas.

Political editor Katharine Murphy travelled with Morrison to Rome and Glasgow this week. Here is how an extraordinary week unfolded behind the scenes.

Prologue: Canberra to Darwin

Scott Morrison is late. This isn’t unusual, so we think nothing of it. It’s been a gruelling couple of weeks in parliament as the Nationals have been coaxed, and then corralled, into supporting a net zero target.

It’s Thursday evening and journalists have been pre-positioned at the RAAF terminal Fairbairn. While we wait, we speculate about how things might go when Morrison has to share a stage with Macron at the G20 and the Cop26 in Glasgow. Will it be rapprochement, or rage? Morrison’s decision to dump a $90bn contract with France’s Naval Group has caused a diplomatic ruckus.

The word around Canberra is Morrison has been trying to line up a bilateral meeting with Macron in Rome. A quick grip-and-grin would allow the prime minister to claim a reset, get us off his back, and allow a focus on his climate pivot which has been in the works since Joe Biden won the US election. When we were briefed about what to expect during the mini summit season, journalists asked whether there was a bilateral meeting planned. Senior officials were cagey.

Morrison lobs more than 30 minutes behind schedule. He appears briefly in our cabin to acknowledge our presence. The prime minister looks spent. He says he’s tired. It’s clear he won’t be lingering. He excuses himself and heads for his suite at the front of the plane. About halfway into the first leg, my colleague Daniel Hurst messages that something new is coming from the Elysee Palace.

Royal Australian Air Force's Airbus KC-30A seen leaving Sydney

There has been a call between Morrison and Macron. A ripple of irritation flows through the journalists’ cabin. We are in an aircraft with Morrison and a small phalanx of advisers. We saw the prime minister just after he had hung up. This is why he’s run late. Nobody mentioned this call. Not even a cryptic hint. Macron has evidently chewed a chunk out of Morrison. According to the French readout, ditching the submarine contract had broken “the relationship of trust”, and Canberra needed to propose “tangible actions” to heal the rift.

Macron’s account of the conversation sets the tone. It takes a period of time for an Australian readout to be produced, and when it comes, it says next to nothing.

The plane descends into Darwin. Given this is the diplomatic equivalent of shots fired, there’s a lunge for laptops. The TV reporters swap their hoodies for shirts and ties for pieces to camera. We tumble out in the warm soup of Darwin’s night air. Some crouch around power points in an empty terminal to file or add paragraphs. Morrison is nowhere to be seen. The TV correspondents position on the tarmac, look down the barrel of the camera, and will themselves not to sweat.

Act one: Rome

Jet engines are idling on the tarmac at Leonardo da Vinci international airport. Leaders and their entourages are arriving in waves for the G20. After 28 hours in the air, we’ve landed in gentle, autumnal sunshine. Morrison alights and strides towards us.

Q: Just on the phone call with president Macron – what did you make of the timing … It sounded like a tense call … Morrison is, naturally, sunny side up. He appreciates Macron finding the time to reach out. He says relations between Australia and France are on the way back. Q: Prime minister, you’ll see president Macron both at G20 and Cop. Do you envisage having a bilateral with him or a pull aside or something formal or informal engagement? [Crickets].

World leaders pose at the Trevi fountain in Rome on the sidelines of the G20 summit

Into the bus. The motorcade speeds into the Roman capital, scattering a succession of tiny Fiats. Rather than easing around the potholes that scar the roads, our driver accelerates into them, sending us flying. Before long, Rome bustles around us. Retail and hospitality open. Hardly anyone wears a mask. Scooters weave through the streets, horns blaring. Fresh from months of lockdown in Canberra, this explosion of Covid-normal is startling. A number of us are transfixed by pre-pandemic life on display out the window.

Tick tock. We are always on the clock and TV reporters always need a new backdrop. The Colosseum is suggested. Many of us trail along to get some air by doing slow laps of the perimeter. When I get back to the hotel, I flick on the BBC. There is Joe Biden. The president of the United States has landed in Rome and he’s sitting beside Macron at France’s Vatican embassy. As I unpack and charge my devices, I log that Biden has come to Macron. The penitent cue sparks interest, so I sit and watch.

Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron chat at Villa Bonaparte in Rome

Biden is an unusually empathetic character, and one of the building blocks of empathy is humility. But America is rarely penitent. Possibly I’m overegging the penitence. Perhaps it was convenience, because Biden has also called on Pope Francis. But America is managing its own diplomatic rupture with Macron because the US is one of the partners in the Aukus pact that superseded the French submarines. Macron is angry with all the Aukus partners.

In Rome, Biden tells Macron he was “under the impression” that France knew Australia was going to back out of the Naval Group contract. He also acknowledges the whole issue has been handled in “clumsy” fashion. This is performative self-criticism. But there’s also blame shifting. The clear implication is Australia has lacked sophistication. This is not good for Morrison.

I wonder what the prime minister is doing right at the moment. Is he also hanging up shirts in his hotel suite, hunting for dental floss, while watching Biden throw him under a bus?

Act two: G20

I’m watching Macron through a window. We are in the final stretch of the G20. Australian journalists have been pre-positioned for a press conference with Morrison. Tonight, we will decamp for Glasgow and the Cop26 summit. The G20 has just issued a communique where the climate change language has been watered down – in part because of Australian lobbying against commitments to phase out fossil fuels. It’s not a great sign.

Morrison hasn’t arrived yet, but Macron’s voice is wafting in our direction. I follow the sound until I get a visual. The French president is compact, but he knows how to use his body as punctuation, or emphasis. The gestures are calculated and precise. David Crowe, chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, has wandered further up the corridor and ducked into the back of the press room. A couple of television colleagues amble over as well: Pablo Vinales from SBS and Andrew Probyn from the ABC. It seems possible we might be able to grab Macron as he departs his press room.

Scott Morrison arrives for a meeting at the G20 summit in Rome

This is a long shot, but for once, everything breaks our way. The French president exits when our small group has washed up in the perfect position to intercept him. Probyn, who has a Lancashire lilt, and a relentless derring-do manner, introduces himself politely as an Australian journalist. Q: Might we have a word? Macron smiles and stops.

The president’s security detail looks not entirely comfortable, but not alarmed. A Macron press aide trailing several metres behind her boss spots the impromptu gaggle, glowers and jogs to catch up. But a relaxed Macron is already lobbing grenades. Out the corner of my eye, I notice another SMH-Age correspondent, Bevan Shields, orbiting the perimeter. Vinales has his iPhone out, filming.

Macron says he harbours friendship and respect for Australia and Australians. But respect requires reciprocity. “I just say when we have respect, you have to be true and you have to behave in line and consistent with this value.” The back and forth continues. Shields is now positioned directly in front of Macron. He asks the president whether he thinks Morrison lied to him during the submarine fracas? The president does not hesitate. “I don’t think, I know,” he says.

'I don't think, I know': Macron accuses Scott Morrison of lying about submarine contract - video

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Having delivered his mic drop, Macron’s entourage sweeps on. The directness of the accusation is astonishing. It takes a minute or two to process. Earlier in the day, Morrison approached Macron informally in the leaders lounge for a handshake that the prime minister’s official photographer captured and disseminated. Macron looked less than delighted in the picture. The eyes weren’t warm. The expressive body inclined marginally backwards. Summits are strange dances, with their own etiquette. Was Morrison’s attempt at incidental contact considered a fresh provocation?

Morrison will take questions in a few minutes. The prime minister’s chief media minder is curious where we’ve been. I relay the president’s central charge to him. I hear later some of my colleagues are annoyed I’ve done this. But it’s a basic courtesy. Given how Morrison operates, it’s also a professional necessity. I’m confident if the prime minister hasn’t been briefed about what Macron has said, he’ll shut down questions by pleading ignorance. Maybe shock and evasion works as a TV moment, but it doesn’t explain why we’ve reached this nadir. We need to tell as well as show. Lying is a serious charge from a global peer. Morrison needs to actually answer the accusation, rather than ease around it. Morrison’s minder disappears to the holding room. When the prime minister arrives, his annoyance is barely concealed.

Q: Prime minister, president Macron has told a couple of us around the corner that you didn’t … Morrison: “A couple of you, sorry?” Q: President Macron told a couple of us around the corner that you didn’t tell him the truth on the subs deal. In fact, he said that you might have lied. Is that true? Morrison: “No”. Q: You’re going to have to see him at Cop. Morrison: “I’ve seen him several times today. You guys have seen him, you were getting selfies with him.”

This sledge is complete nonsense. Macron is clearly testing Australia’s prime minister, pushing his buttons, probing his limits, and Morrison has responded by throwing his toys out of the cot. Crowe corrects the prime minister. Q: We weren’t taking selfies with president Macron. Second of all, when he talked about … Morrison is entirely unrepentant, and notes, caustically: “I must have been misinformed.”

When Morrison wraps the press conference, he barrels out straight through the journalists and the cameras rather than exiting to the side. He charges like a front row forward, but then he hesitates, in an unfamiliar place, navigating a relentless schedule. It looks like he’s lost his bearings. Which way is the exit? Aides usher him out.

Act three: Glasgow

Cop26 has descended on Glasgow. The Scottish city is heaving. Billionaires, royals, celebrities, battle-scarred climate bureaucrats and diplomats self-administer their rapid antigen tests, strap on their masks, form huddles and deliberate over the future of the planet.

Morrison has been focused for months on getting here with enough to ensure Australia isn’t laughed out of the room. But on the opening day, the prime minister is several kilometres away and we are trailing him in hard hats and high viz while he inspects a warship at BAE Systems. This event is so last minute, the venue is being advanced by minders in real time.

Scott Morrison delivers Australia's national statement on day two of the Cop26 conference in Glasgow

While the necessary preparations are made we shelter from Glasgow’s whipping wind in a staff tea room. In the down time, we discover the damage control fairies have been busy overnight. The Daily Telegraph and a couple of other outlets have a leaked text message from Macron. This message is to Morrison, two days before the Aukus deal was unveiled. The president asks: “Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?” The text has been proffered to undercut Macron’s positioning as the wronged party. The spin is, look: this guy knew all along we were going to can his submarines so Macron can lay off the faux outrage.

This is curious, because anyone with basic reading comprehension knows the text demonstrates the opposite. It shows 48 hours before Australia canned the Naval Group contract, Macron was still in the dark. This alleged Exocet in the direction of Elysee is actually an exploding cigar. But nuance is obviously the first casualty of a diplomatic arms race.

In any case, the purpose of the leak isn’t so much the content as the act of leaking. The alpha gesture sends a message: you call me a liar mate, better prepare for some rough justice. So instead of covering the fate of the planet, we are all peering at a warship that apparently possesses the capability of creeping up stealthily on submarines (see what he did there?). Morrison needs to turn the tables, and turning the tables requires an evocative backdrop for TV news.

Scott Morrison greets Prince Charles ahead of their bilateral meeting on day three of Cop26

When he speaks to reporters after the ship tour, Morrison unspools his narrative. Forget stabs in the back, Australia is the victim of French mendacity. Macron wants Morrison to prioritise the restoration of French pride ahead of Australia’s national security – a Faustian pact the prime minister will always scorn, because that’s The Australian Way. (Sorry, that’s actually the climate policy.) In any case, you get the drift. Instead of being a liar, Morrison (in this telling) is a leader of exemplary courage because he’ll do what is necessary. And he just won’t accept Macron sledging Australia. (Actually, the president has sledged Morrison, not Australia – but four days into this Battlestar Galactica reboot, we are fact-adjacent at best).

A reporter asks why Morrison’s office has leaked Macron’s text. The prime minister doesn’t deny the conduct but says: “I’m not going to indulge your editorial on it.” Q: But prime minister, doesn’t the text message exchange show that just a few days before Aukus, Emmanuel Macron, a Nato power and a longstanding ally, was still in the dark on the ultimate decision? … Didn’t Emmanuel Macron, as such a strong ally of Australia and head of France, deserve more …? Morrison ignores the point of the question and hammers his own message.

“I’m going to take the tough decisions to ensure Australia gets the best defence capability and you’ve got to have the strength to put up with the offence that sometimes that may cause. When you stand up for Australia’s interests, not everybody is going to like it. It’s not going to make everybody happy and you’ve got to have the strength to be able to deal with that.”

Given every appearance carries an escalation of some kind, a mad burst of filing ensues. Eventually we get back to the climate conference. Morrison has some new climate financing dollars for the Pacific. Fiji’s prime minister Frank Bainimarama says thanks for that, now how about more action in the decade to 2030? When Morrison delivers Australia’s national statement to a half empty venue late in the day, the prime minister emphasises Australia’s projected over achievement on the current 2030 target. Back home, the government’s internal debate has been all about 2050. But here, net zero by 2050 is a given for the developed world, not any kind of breakthrough.

Morrison gets through day one and on day two, disappears into bilateral meetings. Activity intensifies at the Australian pavilion at the Cop, where a barista is pulling decent flat whites in blue keep cups. At one point, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest drifts past with a small flock of minders on his way to see Joe Biden. There is politics in the pavilion. The gas producer Santos has contributed a carbon capture exhibit. Forrest, who now champions green hydrogen, doesn’t approve of CCS.

As visitors drifted in and out, face down in their messaging apps and calendar invites, grizzled veterans of the climate wars fretted over their coffees, and wondered whether this would be Copenhagen all over again. Malcolm Turnbull, now in the Forrest corporate orbit, circled the perimeter of the pavilion like a restless great white. Macron might have been ghosting Morrison, but the French president had caught up with Turnbull – his old friend.

Conclusion: Al Minhad air base, Dubai

We don’t see Morrison again until we are mustered out of Glasgow and land at Australia’s base for military operations in the Middle East. While we’ve been in the air, France has doubled down again. Macron’s advisers have told Paris-based journalists the text leak has “shattered” confidence.

At the National Press Club in Canberra, the French ambassador wonders who in the world will trust Australia again when there has been such an egregious breach of comity.

French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault speaks at the National Press Club in Canberra
Scott Morrison visits troops at Australia's main operating base at Al Minhad in the UAE

Morrison’s response to this is simple: you started this mon ami. In Glasgow, Morrison reframed himself as the unflappable custodian of Australia’s national interest (as opposed to Macron’s Gallic hysteria). His next roll of the dice is peacemaker. In the desert in Dubai, Morrison proposes an armistice. It’s time for everyone to move on.

Particularly journalists. He’s sick of the sight of us. Why should world leaders feel safe to speak to you? Move on. Was leaking private conversations fair? Move on. What are you going to do to mend the rift? Move on. We’d actually like to stay put, and get some answers to these questions, but we are moved on. To the bus. To the tarmac, to the plane. To Perth. To Sydney. To Canberra. Fini.

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