Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce defended Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Nov. 3 amid the diplomatic row with France that erupted this week.
Speaking to ABC radio, Joyce, who has been acting as prime minister while Morrison has been abroad, noted that French President Emmanuel Macron calling Morrison a liar was a bigger diplomatic issue than the text messages being leaked as evidence to refute Macron’s claims.
Macron had told Australian reporters in Glasgow that he knew that Morrison had lied about the AU$90 billion (US$67 billion) submarine deal.
Joyce said the leak was “not as extraordinary” as calling another country’s leader “a liar when they’re not,” News.com.au reported.
“We had a major political leader call the prime minister of Australia a liar, and you can’t do that, diplomatically,” Joyce said. “You can’t go around calling other leaders of other countries a liar.
“Not [the leader of] a great nation of France. Some tinpot nation in the middle of nowhere, well, I suppose you can say what you like.”
The deputy prime minister said Australia had long been exploring “contingency plans” before the multi-billion dollar submarine contract with France’s Naval Group was canceled in favor of a security deal with the United States and the UK.
The Labor opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Sen. Penny Wong, has spoken out against the leaking of the text messages.
“You don’t make a country more secure by demonstrating that you’re prepared to damage at any cost, damage partnerships and alliances,” she told ABC radio on Nov. 4. “This is the vandalism. It is vandalism.
“The way in which this has been dealt with by the government is with a wanton disregard for our international reputation.”
Her comments come after French ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault deemed the canceled submarine contract to be a “stab in the back.”
However, Morrison has maintained that the decision was made to best serve Australia’s national interests, having previously noted that in the five years since the French deal was first made, the geopolitical landscape had changed enough to warrant nuclear subs.
To this end, Australia announced the AUKUS agreement with the United States and the UK in September.
Thebault said the leaking of private texts to Australian media was “an unprecedented new low.”
“Doing so also sends a very worrying signal. For all heads of state—be aware, in Australia, there will be leaks,” Thebault told the National Press Club on Nov. 3.
Morrison denied misleading the French government and insisted that concerns about the submarine project had been raised for some time.
Asked whether his office leaked the text messages with Macron, Morrison responded: “Claims had been made, and those claims were refuted.”
“We had made very clear that there were very significant issues about us moving forward with this contract,” he told reporters on his way back from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
Joyce justified the leaked texts.
“What else do you do? It either stands that you are a liar or you defend your position and say you are not,” he said.
Joyce, who’s the leader of the Nationals party, also insisted media reports from February should have been enough to alert France that the contract was on the rocks.
“This feigning of a great surprise [by France] … it’s just not the truth,” he said.
Joyce added that all business contracts had terms for extensions, cessation, and improvement.
“One of the terms of the contract [for the French submarines] was we had the right to get out of it if it wasn’t working out,” he said.
He maintained Australia would continue to respect France “because it is a great nation.”
AAP contributed to this report.