Interview with Jim Wilson, 2GB Drive

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-France relationship.
03 November 2021

Jim Wilson:

Well, how about the last few days in Glasgow and before that in Rome at the G20 summit? I mean, the drama has come thick and fast after sookie French President Emmanuel Macron threw his toys out of the cot in a savage payback plan against Scott Morrison and our country. Now, Macron smirked as he told Australian journalists that Scott Morrison was a liar. And he complained so hard to the US government that Joe Biden through us under a bus calling our AUKUS announcement clumsy and claiming he never knew that the French were in the dark that their submarines deal with us was about to be scrapped.

Well, today the hits keep coming with the French Ambassador to Australia doubling down on the French despair telling the National Press Club just how bad he considers Australia’s behaviour.

Jean-Pierre Thébault:

The deceit was intentional, and because there was far more at stake than providing submarines, because it was a common agreement on sovereignty, sealed with the transmission of highly classified data, the way it was handled was plainly a stab in the back.

Jim Wilson:

Strong words from the French ambassador this afternoon, especially to a head of country and our Prime Minister in Scott Morrison. So where does this diplomatic row leave the federal government? What does the minister at the helm of foreign affairs make of the saga and this escalating feud? Marise Payne is our Foreign Minister and Minister for Women, and she joins me live for her first interview since this feud escalated. Minister, welcome back to Drive.

Marise Payne:

Good afternoon, Jim.

Jim Wilson:

Well, what did you make, firstly, of that address from the French ambassador earlier this afternoon, that he feels like the French have been stabbed in the back? They were very, very strong words, Minister.

Marise Payne:

Jim, I had a constructive meeting with the ambassador in person in Sydney on Monday, and I think it is important to acknowledge that this was an important and a difficult decision for Australia to make but one which we determined we had to make in our national interests. And I certainly understand that it has been deeply disappointing for France. We have acknowledged that. We have been very clear in saying we understand that. But our job in working together as nations in the Indo-Pacific is to work through this and to prioritise, if you like, the security and the stability of this region.

Certainly, that is the approach that we have been endeavouring to take, and when we make a decision in Australia’s national interests we will be clear with Australians as to the nature of that decision, and that is what we have done.

Jim Wilson:

Did he use the similar language to you on Monday to what he used this afternoon about deceit, lies, stabbed in the back? I mean, it’s very, very strong language especially when it’s aimed towards our Prime Minister and our government.

Marise Payne:

Well, as the Prime Minister has said, it is not true in terms of the comments which have been made about lies and particularly in relation to the Prime Minister. I don’t go into my conversations with diplomatic representatives and with my counterparts. I’ve consistently held that approach, and I’m not going to do that now.

Jim Wilson:

Were you disappointed, though, Minister, this afternoon with that language at the Press Club?

Marise Payne:

Well, it’s language that has been used in the past in relation to this. But, importantly for Australia, we are never going to compromise on decisions that we need to take in Australia’s national interest. I think that is what Australians expect us to do. What they want, what matters to Australians, is that we do everything we can to ensure that Australia’s defences are the best that they can be and that we are making those decisions in the national interest.

Jim Wilson:

What was your reaction to Emmanuel Macron calling Scott Morrison a liar?

Marise Payne:

Well, I was understood – understanding to see the Prime Minister swiftly clarify that and to make the position clear. The Prime Minister has set out the timeline and the discussions which were had. I do think what we both need to do – both countries need to do now and the ambassador referred to this also today – is to work together in the Indo-Pacific. I understand there are – and I know that there are discussions continuing between Australia and France.

But this is the region in the world of the most dynamic strategic challenges. And it’s something Australia is very conscious of, one which we have worked previously with France on. And I am confident that we will be able to do that into the future. I understand, as I said to you not just today but previously, that this is – has been a deeply disappointing decision to France in relation to our decision not to proceed with the future submarine program. But there is a great deal more between our two nations and a great deal of history between our two nations, as you know.

Jim Wilson:

A lot of our listeners feel deeply offended that France has labelled our Prime Minister a liar, and the US have also criticised us as well about the whole process. You can understand their frustrations and their disappointment and the fact that they feel offended.

Marise Payne:

Well, I can understand their interests are similar to that of the government in ensuring that we are pursuing Australia’s national interests. And AUKUS itself, Jim – and I think it’s really important to remember the significance of the AUKUS arrangements between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Yes, it will bring us the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, and that is very important. But within it, through its fabric are very, very important science and technology undertakings in relation to artificial intelligence, in relation to quantum computing, in relation to cyber, other undersea capabilities that are going to equip us and prepare us for the very, very significant strategic and security challenges potentially of the decades and decades ahead. And I do think that it is important to remember that AUKUS stands for those very, very significant efforts.

Jim Wilson:

Just on AUKUS, just before the announcement of the AUKUS deal, you and Defence Minister Peter Dutton met with French officials to discuss the status of the Naval Group contract. I mean, should have the French have left that meeting with you and Peter Dutton knowing that the deal was in serious jeopardy?

Marise Payne:

Well, in fact, the meeting was much more than that. They are known as 2+2s; they are meetings of foreign and defence ministers, and we have only a small number of those with key partners. And this was the first occasion that we had held such a meeting with France. There had been no final decision taken at the time of the meeting and proceeding with it was important to drive that very practical and formal cooperation with France that I’ve referred to in the Indo-Pacific. And I hope the outcomes of that meeting, which have been made publicly available and were at the time of the meeting itself, I hope they demonstrate that our bilateral relationship with France is very broad and very deep. Certainly, the future submarine program was a significant part of that, but it is and has been over many years has been so much more than that. So, the meeting was an important one, and I think important to occur.

Jim Wilson:

So, as far as the French President goes, as far as feeling lied to, deceitful behaviour on our behalf and being blindsided, you say that’s wrong?

Marise Payne:

The Prime Minister has said that that is not true and that he has provided information on the timeline and he has rejected that. And I think it was an important statement by the Prime Minister and one that he made very clearly.

Jim Wilson:

Okay. I want to ask you about your old boss Malcolm Turnbull. He’s obviously been over in Glasgow. He’s obviously put himself right into this drama and stirred the pot. He’s come out today saying our Prime Minister “has always had a reputation for telling lies”. What would you say to Malcolm Turnbull this afternoon?

Marise Payne:

Well, I don’t support that, and I don’t agree with that. And I think the Prime Minister has made his position very clear and, quite frankly, it’s Prime Minister Morrison who has been engaged on these matters and he has been well engaged with his counterparts like President Macron in terms of dealing with these issues. Comments like those are for others to make, but they are not ones with which I agree or support.

Jim Wilson:

Well, they do a lot of damage, especially on the world stage. And it’s detrimental to not only Scott Morrison’s reputation, international, but also to your government.

Marise Payne:

Well, we have a great deal of important work to do in the jobs of national security right across the government, whether it’s the Prime Minister’s purview or mine or the Minister for Defence, the Minister for Home Affairs and others of our colleagues. That’s what we’re focused on. These matters have been aired publicly and I think it is important to say to the people of Australia that we are focused in getting on with the task that they expect us to meet and to address – and that is assuring our national security and acting in our national interests. And your government must take the decisions we take in Australia’s national interests. The Australian people deserve and expect no less.

Jim Wilson:

Well, the right decision’s been made in the best interests of this country. No doubts about that. It’s a much better deal. There’ll be compensation for the French. Yes, a contract’s a contract. But they’ll be necessarily, you know, compensated. That’s the bottom line. Malcolm Turnbull, though, as a former Prime Minister of our country has done nothing to actually ease diplomatic tensions. He’s just thrown fuel on the fire. That’s the last thing we need.

Marise Payne:

Well, I’m very focused on moving forward with the relationship. And I know that that will take time. As I said, I met the ambassador on Monday. The President and the Prime Minister have spoken both by telephone and in person in Rome and I believe in Glasgow at those recent meetings that you referred to. And so, our focus is on ensuring that we are able to move forward whilst, as I said, acknowledging the difficulty of the decision and the disappointment felt, of course, by France in that regard.

Jim Wilson:

Okay. Considering Joe Biden, the US President called the announcement of the AUKUS deal “clumsy”, are you confident this administration is completely committed to AUKUS and seeing it through?

Marise Payne:

Yes, I absolutely am confident of that commitment. And, in fact, as has also been indicated, we have worked very closely with the US administration and keeping them up to date on the discussions around AUKUS. I am in regular contact with counterparts in the United States, as is our entire system. And I have no concerns about that whatsoever.

Jim Wilson:

Okay, just before I let you go, as Foreign Minister you’ll be absolutely rapt, wouldn’t you, as of Monday just gone, that quarantine has been scrapped as far as entering Sydney. Because you are very familiar, Minister, with quarantine.

Marise Payne:

I do have a level of familiarity, Jim, but so do many, many other Australians. And this has been a very, very challenging time. I really want to thank all those Australians who’ve worked very hard to get us to this point, both in terms of the vaccination program, the businesses that have had to work their way through Covid, the families that have for so many days, weeks and months struggled to deal with lockdowns. It is a key milestone to be at this point.

We will be able to start travelling internationally, and I have to say, I really need Australians to make sure that they are looking at Smartraveller when they are planning to set out on their international travels. We have revised all our travel advisories for 177 different destinations, and it’s really important that Australians are still very conscious about protecting themselves and making sure that they are taking every careful step.

Jim Wilson:

Minister, you’re a good friend of this program. We appreciate your time this afternoon.

Marise Payne:

Thanks very much, Jim.

Jim Wilson:

That’s Foreign Minister and Minister for Women, Senator Marise Payne.

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