It was a stunning summer evening at the Elysée Palace, and dinner with the French president was about to be served on the terrace overlooking the garden.
Under white umbrellas, gloved palace waiters in white bow ties and black tails ushered Emmanuel Macron and Scott Morrison to their seats.
A small bowl of crimson and scarlet flowers sat on the table between the two men, as the fountain on the lawn sprayed jets of water.
“It would’ve been nice to just enjoy it, to be honest,” Morrison says. “And I went, ‘Well, that’s not on the menu for me tonight. There’s important things I need to discuss.'”
But the Australian prime minister had to tread carefully.
There was no way he could let Macron into the biggest secret of his government – that Australia was backing out of its $90 billion submarine deal with France to pursue a nuclear option with the British and the Americans.
“I couldn’t tell him that we had completed the agreement [with the US and Britain] because we hadn’t. I mean, this thing could all still go pear-shaped,” Morrison says.
“This thing” was a nuclear submarine deal worth hundreds of billions and the most radical realignment of Australia’s defence strategy in decades. It was a trilateral military partnership with London and Washington that would become known as AUKUS.
The nuclear ‘plan B’
Before the 2019 election, Morrison had asked for a briefing on the French diesel submarine deal because he was worried Australia would be delivered a dud.
“The strategic situation with China had changed,” Morrison says. “My concern was that these subs would be obsolete before they even got wet … [I thought] if the French sub program falls over, we are going to need a plan B.”
Only a very few were brought into Morrison’s thinking. The first was the defence minister, Linda Reynolds.
“The prime minister approached me, [we] had a meeting and [he] said, ‘Can we start looking for a plan B? … What if we could now get access through the Americans and or Brits [to] nuclear submarine capability?'” Reynolds recalls.
Reynolds understood that acquiring nuclear submarines would be a game changer for Australia.
“It gives us reach but it also gives more security,” she says. “So in terms of stealth, in terms of time underwater and not having to come up … it protects them. It gives them greater endurance. And basically, you can stay underwater as long as you can feed your sailors. It’s a completely different league.”
The key to getting the nuclear plan B over the line was secrecy, even within the prime minister’s own office.
“During this period of time, my movements were a bit inexplicable to some of my staff because we kept this really tight,” Morrison says.
“These things you got to keep tight because the slightest spray of it would’ve killed the whole deal … and we got to a position where the institutions, both in the UK and the US, and Australia, all believed we could take it to the next level.”
Dinner at the palace
In June 2021, Scott Morrison headed off to the G7 summit in Cornwall in the UK to meet with British prime minister Boris Johnson and US president Joe Biden about the subs deal and his AUKUS concept.
“We sit down and … the president basically says, ‘I understand you’ve got something to put to us?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we do.’ And I just ran through the whole proposal,” Morrison recalls.
“We agreed a process from that meeting, which was the effective ‘yes’, subject to, let’s just dot the ‘Is’ and cross all the ‘Ts’ for the next little while.”
Morrison was on the cusp of landing the biggest defence deal in generations. But there was one hurdle – Emmanuel Macron.
“We’d agreed to have dinner [at the Elysée Palace] on the way back from the G7,” Morrison recounts. “So I came to Paris … Emmanuel kindly welcomes me and says his thing. I talk about the importance of the Indo-Pacific but I made no mention of the submarines.”
After a hug in front of the press at the entrance to the 365-room palace – twice the size of the US White House – the two men sat for dinner on the terrace.
Morrison had to tell Macron he was planning to walk away from their subs deal without exactly saying those words. To do that would risk the nuclear option and AUKUS going “pear-shaped”.
“Eventually, I turn the conversation around to what’s going on,” Morrison says. “I was very clear that the situation in China had deteriorated significantly since we’d signed the contract for the diesel submarines. I was very clear [they] could no longer do that job we wanted them to do.”
Morrison says he told the French president he was concerned about the delay in the diesel subs project.
“I said that we were considering other options. I can’t tell you what they are, but obviously we need a nuclear-powered submarine capability to be able to address these strategic issues. And I said, ‘I can’t tell you who we’re doing it with,” Morrison says. “Now, I expected the dinner to end about there.”
But much to Morrison’s surprise, the dinner did not end there.
“He was a generous host,” he recounts. “He actually showed me around [the palace], showed me some document signed by Napoleon himself, which was pretty cool.”
A stab in the back
After dinner and the tour, Morrison returned to his hotel and briefed the Australian ambassador. The next morning, all hell broke loose.
“The French defence system went into hyper drive,” Morrison recalls. “They rang every Australian they could ring … they knew the contract was under threat at that point.”
But the French efforts to keep the subs contract afloat and to scuttle AUKUS would fail.
Three months after the dinner at the Elysée Palace, the biggest deal of Morrison’s prime ministership was announced in an early morning media event with Joe Biden and Boris Johnson.
The same day, Australia officially dumped the French contract to build 12 conventional submarines. It was done without any conversation between Morrison and Macron.
“We tried to set up a meeting over the course of that week and it wasn’t happening,” Morrison says. “So I wrote him a letter and I texted it to him so I knew he would get it directly.”
The French government would later describe the Morrison government’s contract cancellation as “a stab in the back” and recall its ambassador to Australia in protest. (Australia would pay $835 million in compensation to France’s Naval Group for scrapping the subs deal.)
“The decision came as a terrible shock to France,” says Malcolm Turnbull, who as prime minister signed the French subs deal. “It was a humiliation for Macron. He was lied to. It caused an enormous rupture in our relations with France.”
Macron would soon have a very public opportunity to register his displeasure over Morrison’s move and to slap down the Australian prime minister.
Just weeks later, at the G20 in Rome, the French president had completed agreement [withwas approached by Australian journalists and asked if he thought Morrison had lied to him over the nuclear subs deal with the US and the UK.
“I don’t think, I know,” Macron replied.
In his interview for Nemesis, Morrison denied lying to the French president, though he admitted he didn’t tell him the full story either.
“I’ve been quite bewildered since, how everyone said, ‘Oh, you could have broken the news better. You could have told him earlier,'” Morrison says.
“I know exactly what he would have done if I’d told him earlier. He would’ve scuttled the entire deal. He would’ve deployed the entire French diplomatic corps to Washington and killed the deal. And I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
Asked about being called a liar by the French president, Morrison doesn’t skip a beat.
“I’ve got big shoulders. I’m sure [Chinese] President Xi Jinping called me worse.”
Watch all three episodes of the ABC political docuseries Nemesis now on ABC iview.