Former Australian leader Malcolm Turnbull said Wednesday his successor “deliberately deceived” France when he scrapped a multi-billion-euro submarine deal with Paris in favour of nuclear-powered US or British alternatives.
Turnbull, whose government approved the submarine deal with France in 2016, was scathing about the way Prime Minister Scott Morrison handled the switch, which was part of a new strategic alliance with the United States and Britain.
“Morrison has not acted in good faith. He deliberately deceived France. He makes no defence of his conduct other than to say it was in Australia’s national interest,” Turnbull told the National Press Club in Canberra.
“France believes it has been deceived and humiliated, and she was. This betrayal of trust will dog our relations with Europe for years,” he added.
“The Australian government has treated the French Republic with contempt.”
Turnbull said that despite the new US-Britain-Australia defence partnership, there was no contract signed for Australia to buy nuclear-powered submarines, expected to be either Britain’s Astute or the larger US Virginia class.
“Australia now has no new submarine programme at all,” he said. “The only certainty is that we won’t have new submarines for 20 years and their cost will be a lot more than the French-designed subs.”
Morrison has said the decision to switch to nuclear-powered submarines was driven by changing dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region, where rising military power China is increasingly asserting its claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
But Paris reacted with fury to the switch, saying it was kept in the dark until the last moment as Australia withdrew from a contract originally worth Aus$50 billion ($36.5 billion, 31 billion euros).
Describing the cancellation as a “stab in the back”, France recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia.
French President Emmanuel Macron has since held talks with his US counterpart Joe Biden to start patching up relations and instructed his ambassador to return to Washington this week.
There has been no announcement on the return of the French ambassador to Canberra, however, and no talks reported between Macron and Morrison.
Morrison and Turnbull are rivals within Australia’s Liberal Party. Morrison took over as prime minister in August 2018 when Turnbull was ousted by a hardline conservative faction of the party.