Scott Morrison’s office declined to release his full-text message exchange with French President Emmanuel Macron to the center of the Aukus row, citing reasons that compromise the earlier selective leak of one of the texts.
A senior adviser to the Australian prime minister now claims the messages between the two men in mid-September ‘contain information which was communicated in confidence’ and that their dissemination could harm ‘Australia’s international relations’.
The diplomatic divide deepened in November after Macron accused Morrison of lying to him about dumping the French submarine contract in favor of new plans with the US and UK for submarines to nuclear propulsion.
Morrison shot back that he was ‘not going to go sledding in Australia’, and part of an exchange of text messages was circulated to several Australian media in an apparent attempt to blunt the idea that France had been completely blindsided by the cancellation.
Macron reportedly texted Morrison two days before the announcement – as the Australian Prime Minister attempted to schedule a phone call – asking: “Should I expect good news or bad news for our joint ambitions in matter of submarines?
Morrison never disputed that it was the Australian government that published the contents of the private message, insisting the text ‘refutes’ incorrect claims – but French officials denounced the leak as ‘a new low without previous”.
In an attempt to better understand the extent and nature of communications between Morrison and Macron, Guardian Australia asked the Prime Minister’s Office for text messages between the couple between September 12 and September 18.
But a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office said he was ‘satisfied that release of the requested documents would cause or could reasonably be expected to cause damage to Australia’s international relations’ and that he was ‘completely exempt from disclosure” under freedom of information laws.
“The documents requested are communications between the prime minister and the head of state of a foreign government and were undertaken on a confidential basis,” the adviser wrote in a letter sent late Friday evening.
The FoI request, submitted two months ago, specifically included Morrison’s response to Macron’s question and the Prime Minister’s September 15 “personal correspondence” formally informing him of Australia’s decision.
The FoI application asked the decision-maker to take into account that the Australian government had already publicly disclosed elements of the requested material, evidently judging that there was no unacceptable impact on the relationship.
But the decision letter cited Freedom of Information guidelines that damage to international relations can include “immaterial or speculative damage, such as loss of confidence in the Australian Government or any of its agencies”.
The guidelines also state that communication between governments is confidential “if communicated and received under an express or implied understanding that the communication would remain confidential.”
Acting Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally said the letter’s reasoning “demonstrates that Mr Morrison knows he should never have selectively disclosed the other messages for the purpose of ’embarrass President Macron’.
“Mr Morrison’s office has issued a damning indictment for Mr Morrison’s own conduct, stating that the public distribution of such text messages causes damage to Australia’s international relations,” she said. .
“It’s a reminder that Mr Morrison is the one who started the text message leak craze to undermine others.”
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who is now at the center of a political storm over his own text describing Morrison as ‘a hypocrite and a liar’, said in November the leak was ‘not as extraordinary than calling the leader of another country a liar when they are not”.
When asked in November if Macron calling him a liar was the trigger for the leak and if it was “right for you to do what you did”, Morrison said: “Allegations had been made and those allegations have been refuted… what is needed now is for us to move on.
The reasons specified in the letter from Morrison’s office seem to implicitly support the French government’s objections to the earlier leak of a text message it said would be treated as private.
Close advisers to Macron said trust had been “completely shattered” by “a rather crude and unconventional tactic”.
French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thébault said the leak “sent a very worrying signal to all heads of state” that the Australian government could possibly “weaponize” their confidential messages.
Late Friday, Morrison’s office also blocked a separate FoI request for the communications plan or strategy regarding Aukus’ announcement.
His office took 133 days – well beyond the statutory 30-day deadline – to conclude that the documents were exempt because they were created primarily to form a Cabinet submission.
Joe Biden tried to mend the disagreement between the United States and France over the “clumsy” handling of Aukus by telling Macron that he had “the impression that France had been informed long before the [submarine] the case did not pass”.
Last week, Guardian Australia revealed that Australia’s top defense official had promised to report to the Australian government on “good progress” on the French project, just two weeks before the deal was called off.
It prompted former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to accuse Morrison of presiding over “a first-rate diplomatic debacle”.
Defense Minister Peter Dutton told the ABC the government had acted on the advice that nuclear-powered submarines were “in the best interests of our country” because they would be less easily detectable. Dutton said he thought “the French have moved on”, but “you and the ABC no, and the Guardian, and Malcolm”.
Another set of documents released in December showed that an earlier Department of Defense investigation into the nuclear-powered submarine option, launched in 2020, was to be dealt with on a “strictly need to know” basis.
While Aukus has been described by US officials as “the biggest strategic step Australia has taken in generations”, the practicalities of the underwater plan are now the subject of another 18-month study. .
Morrison’s office has been contacted for comment.