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France-Australia rift: Dan Tehan, Simon Birmingham dodge awkward question

The Prime Minister has refused to answer questions about the diplomatic spat between Australia and France over a cancelled submarine deal.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to answer any further questions about the diplomatic row with France in his first press conference since arriving home from Europe.

Mr Morrison was in Sydney on Friday when he was asked for further comment on the tensions between Australia and France that plagued his trip to the G20 leaders summit in Rome and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

“We’ve moved on from that issue. That’s what I said when I was in Dubai,” was all he would say on the matter.

While Mr Morrison may like to move on, government ministers, including Trade Minister Dan Tehan, have continued to provide comment on the issue.

Earlier on Friday, Mr Tehan refused to be drawn on whether Mr Morrison’s leaking of private text messages with the French President was the right decision as he maintained trade relations would not suffer.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham attempted to put the blame on Australian journalists over the escalating rift between Australia and France.

Mr Tehan, a former diplomat, said the relationship between Australia and France would eventually heal and the export trade between the two countries would not suffer in the meantime.

But when asked whether Mr Morrison should have leaked private correspondence with Emmanuel Macron, Mr Tehan refused to answer.

“I think the PM said it very well when he said ‘let’s not rake over hot coals. Let’s move on’,” Mr Tehan told ABC Breakfast.

When asked again whether he would leak high-level communication, Mr Tehan again said he was “not going to rake over hot coals” – an answer he gave four times.

“The most important thing is that we move on. We focus on … the importance of the relationship,” he said.

“These are the things that we need to focus on to get the relationship back on an even keel.

“That’s what I will be continuing to press for whenever I can have that engagement. That’s what I’m looking for with my French counterpart, so I think (that’s) the most important thing now.

“Let’s move on.”

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham was asked a similar question on RN on Friday morning and said his focus was on “moving things forward”.

“I don’t think any of these things help us to be able to move forward which is what I want us to do. We need to simply get on and make AUKUS a success,” he said.

Mr Tehan’s comments come after Mr Morrison’s week-long European sojourn was plagued by tension with Mr Macron, almost two months after Australia scrapped a $90bn submarine deal in favour of establishing a partnership with the US and the UK that would lead to nuclear defence capabilities.

French authorities say the scrapping of the deal was an unexpected “stab in the back”, but Mr Morrison says the French were given an indication the contract would be torn up.

As a result, Mr Macron was asked by Australian journalists whether he thought Mr Morrison had lied to him, to which he replied, “I don’t think, I know.”

The French ambassador told the National Press Club on Wednesday that he knew of other examples of Australia lying to France, and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull also came out to brandish Mr Morrison as having a “reputation for telling lies”.

Text messages between the two leaders, supposedly leaked by the Prime Minister’s Office, were given to Australian media in an attempt to strengthen Mr Morrison’s position, but ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault labelled it a “new low” and “intentional deceit”.

Mr Birmingham said people could “ask whether it was wise (in retrospect) to leak the texts” but sought to put the blame for the escalating spat back on Australian journalists, saying the press had “pressured” Mr Macron to call Mr Morrison a liar.

“People could ask the question as to whether it was wise for journalists to pressure the French President, to pressure in regards to the comments that he made. I don’t want to get into any of those sorts of things,” Mr Birmingham told RN.

“I don’t think any of these things help us to be able to move forward, which is what I want to make sure we do in the relationship.”

Mr Tehan said the economic relationship between the two countries was in “France’s advantage” and would not suffer as the tit-for-tat continues.

“We take over $5bn worth of exports by France, we sent about over a billion to them. There is a very strong investment relationship,” Mr Tehan said.

“All the meetings that I had, the French investors were still looking to Australia as a great opportunity to invest, and I know the same is for Australian investors here, so I think we will see the economic relationship continue as normal.”

Originally published as Scott Morrison, Dan Tehan, Simon Birmingham dodge awkward question over leaked text messages

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