France’s claim that Australia deceived it over the $90bn submarine project on the same day as it was cancelled have been torpedoed by letter written by the director-general of the Australian Future Submarine Program, Commodore Craig Bourke
Exclusive article for the Australian by CAMERON STEWART, ASSOCIATE EDITOR
OCTOBER 1, 2021
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian this week accused Australia of lying, claiming that the Defence Department sent a letter to Paris on the day the contract was cancelled that said Australia was ready for the “rapid signature for the second phase of the program”.
“Everything I have told you is confirmed by the letter I received on 15 September from the Australian ministry of defence that said everything is OK let’s continue,” Mr Le Drian told a parliamentary hearing in France. “Someone lied.”
However, the letter sent by Defence to Paris on that day, obtained by The Weekend Australian, says no such thing.
The Defence letter says only that the French shipbuilder Naval Group had completed a “systems review” — a formal engineering design review — and could now formally “exit” that review as required under the submarine design contract.
But the letter, written in dry contractual language by the director-general of the Future Submarine Program, Commodore Craig Bourke, and sent to Naval Group, makes no reference to any decision to authorise or even mention the next phase of design work.
In fact, it goes out of its way to state the completion of the systems review in no way automatically leads to the next phase in the contract. the letter states:
“The matters addressed in this correspondence do not provide any authorisation to continue work or for the reimbursement of that work under (the) Core Work Scope 1 (contract)”
Naval Group had been aware since late last year that a decision to start the next phase of work would be subject to further government consideration.
Mr Le Drian described the way Australia broke the contract as a “betrayal”, and France has reacted with fury to the decision, with France recalling its ambassador from Canberra and French President Emmanuel Macron refusing to take calls from Scott Morrison.
Mr Le Drian said the ambassador would return to Australia only “when we have had a review” and that France was “waiting for strong actions and not just words” from Canberra.
French Trade Minister Franck Riester has also refused to meet Trade Minister Dan Tehan when Mr Tehan visits Paris this month for an OECD meeting.
Mr Morrison has acknowledged France’s “disappointment” but said he acted in Australia’s national interests in scrapping the French project in favour of a new plan to build nuclear-powered submarines with the technological help of the US and Britain under a new pact known as AUKUS.
“We chose not to go through a gate in a contract,” Mr Morrison said.
“The contract was set up that way, and we chose not to go through it because we believed to do so would ultimately not be in Australia’s interests.”
Mr Le Drian said the AUKUS pact was a surrender of Australia’s sovereignty to the US.
“It is not just the breaking of a contract, it is a betrayal and a breaking of trust,” he said.
“The effect is that Australia has abandoned its sovereignty and made a leap into the unknown with the choice of technology it doesn’t control and won’t control in the future.
“This puts it at the mercy of US politics.”
The decision by the Morrison government means that Australia will eventually seek to build eight nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide instead of 12 French-designed conventionally powered submarines.
Cameron Stewart is an Associate Editor at The Australian, combining investigative reporting on foreign affairs, defence and national security with feature writing for the Weekend Australian Magazine. He was previously the paper's Washington Correspondent covering North America from 2017 until early 2021. He was also the New York correspondent during the late 1990s. Cameron is a former winner of the Graham Perkin Award for Australian Journalist of the Year.
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Royal Navy Vanguard submarine