Peter Dutton says sustained expressions of outrage from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, may be connected to the European country’s looming national election rather than the cancellation of a $90bn submarine contract.
Australia’s defence minister told the Nine network a call on Thursday night between Macron and the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, had been “productive”. The conversation was the first time the two leaders have spoken since the unveiling of the Aukus pact sent diplomatic relationship between Canberra and Paris into freefall.
The defence minister said on Friday morning his government understood Macron’s frustration. But Dutton also suggested the French president may be playing to domestic political sensibilities. “Look, don’t forget, too, that France has got an election in April of next year,” he said.
“So politicians and elections always make for an interesting mix. So I think once we get through that next year, hopefully we can continue with steps to normalise the relationship, but that’s the situation at the moment”.
France has said it was “betrayed”, “stabbed in the back” and “deceived” over Australia’s decision to dump a French-backed submarine project worth up to A$90bn (£48bn).
During the call with Morrison on Thursday night, Macron told the Australian prime minister the scrapping of a multibillion-dollar submarine contract “broke the relationship of trust” and said Canberra should propose “tangible actions” to heal a diplomatic rift.
According to a read out of the conversation from the French government, Macron also encouraged Morrison to adopt a more ambitious climate policy. The more ambitious policy should include a commitment “to cease production and consumption of coal at the national level and abroad”.
Morrison is on his way to the G20 summit in Rome, which will have a significant climate change focus, and then to the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, where a number of world leaders will pledge more ambitious climate commitments in the decade to 2030.
Officials say no bilateral meeting between Morrison and Macron has yet been scheduled. But the two leaders will see one another in Rome and Glasgow.
As well as the fierce backlash from France, the Aukus pact has triggered disquiet from Indonesia and Malaysia. Australia’s neighbours are worried the agreement accelerates an arms race in the Indo-Pacific. Morrison will meet the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, on the sidelines of the G20.
Morrison will also meet the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, the Korean president, Moon Jae-in, the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and the director general of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on Saturday.
The Australia record of Morrison’s call with Macron on Thursday night did not reference France’s coal push – a position that would be shared by many European countries.
It said Morrison “took the opportunity to inform the president about Australia’s commitment to deliver net zero emissions by 2050”.
According to a draft copy of the G20 communique obtained by the Reuters news agency, leaders converging on Rome are working towards a statement at the conclusion of the weekend summit that will reaffirm a commitment to “phase out and rationalise” fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 and to curb coal power.
The draft communique says leaders will “do their utmost” to avoid building new unabated coal plants. But it adds the phrase: “taking national circumstances into account”.
Morrison would face fierce domestic opposition from the Nationals if any substantial commitments were made to phase out fossil fuels. According to the draft G20 communique, the leaders are working towards a commitment to end public finance for overseas coal plants by the end of this year and aim for a “largely decarbonised” power system in the 2030s”.
There is also draft wording about methane. G20 countries would promise to reduce methane emissions “substantially” by 2030. But that deadline is provisional in the text.
Before Morrison left for Rome on Thursday night, the Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, claimed his party had secured the exclusion of livestock methane emissions during the recent negotiations over the government’s net zero 2050 target – a claim the prime minister has dismissed.
But Australia has opted out of the global methane pledge – a commitment to reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030 that will be launched at the Cop26 climate summit next week. Australia is one of the world’s major gas producers, and gas production generates substantial methane emissions.
Australia’s energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, says he will use his time at Cop26 to convince his global peers that Australia was a “safe and reliable destination to invest in gas, hydrogen and new energy technologies”.
The G20 is a precursor event for the United Nations-led climate conference. The United Kingdom and the United States have lobbied leaders to bring substantial emissions reduction pledges for 2030, but the Nationals vetoed an effort by Morrison to increase Australia’s Abbott-era target.
Countries will also be pressured to increase climate financing for the developed world, but Australia has opted out of the Green Climate Fund. Australia is expected to promise additional funding through new technology partnerships.
Australia is expected to announce new technology partnerships with Indo-Pacific countries during Cop26. There will be more to say on a new Indo-Pacific carbon offset scheme that was flagged in the government’s climate policy reboot this week.
The prime minister’s primary focus at the G20 – his first stop – will be to lobby leaders to endorse stronger global action to protect children on social media. The government this week signalled social media platforms will face fines of up to $10m for serious privacy breaches.