Australia’s new prime minister will have an easier time mending relations with the French “because he is not Scott Morrison and that’s a big advantage”, the former leader Malcolm Turnbull has told journalists in Paris.
Turnbull said Anthony Albanese, who will meet the French president in Paris on Friday, was honest and “never had a reputation for being deceitful and untruthful”.
This would help in thawing the freeze in relations between Canberra and Paris that followed Morrison cancelling a A$90bn (£48bn) submarine deal with French defence contractor Naval Group last September.
The new Australian Labor government remains committed to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under the Aukus agreement with the US and the UK – the decision at the heart of the rift with France.
It is understood to be working to a March deadline to make major decisions on how and when those submarines will be built, along with any interim solution to bridge a “capability gap” in the nation’s defences.
Albanese, who arrived in Madrid on Tuesday to attend a Nato summit, signed off on a €550m (A$830m) settlement with Naval Group and is due to meet with Emmanuel Macron in Paris later in the week.
Turnbull, who announced the original submarine deal with France in 2016 and has become one of Morrison’s fiercest critics, said restoring trust was “really important” but would take some time.
“The meeting this week will be important because Mr Albanese can in effect turn the page on a unedifying episode, and he is not Scott Morrison and that’s a big advantage,” Turnbull told a group of mainly French journalists and The Guardian this week.
“I have a good relationship with your president [Macron] and what I’d say about Anthony Albanese is that I’ve known him for a very long time, he’s on the other side of politics from me but we know each other well.
“He’s an honest man and he’s got a reputation for being honest. He never had a reputation for being deceitful and untruthful and he’s very competent. I think he will do well, I hope he does well.”
Turnbull was in Paris last week and returned to the French capital after travelling to London on Thursday and Friday. He said the timing of his visit was a “coincidence”.
But he said he had spoken to French government ministers and contacts at the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry.
Australian-French relations hit a historic low at the end of last year when Morrison dumped a contract with France to build 12 diesel-powered submarines in favour of a deal with the US and the UK aimed at acquiring at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
France said it had known nothing of the Aukus deal in advance and had been “betrayed”, “stabbed in the back” and “deceived”.
Macron accused Morrison of lying to him, and France recalled its ambassador from Canberra.
Morrison has repeatedly defended his handling of the project cancellation, saying he acted in Australia’s national interest. He cited advice that the country needed less easily detectible nuclear-propelled submarines in light of the deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific.
Turnbull has always been scathing of Morrison’s handling of the matter, but Labor has said it was also “a profound mistake” for Turnbull to announce the partnership with the French bidder prior to the 2016 election before the design was finished.
The new defence minister, Richard Marles, has argued it would have been better for the Turnbull government to keep “some competitive tension” in the process by allowing the final two bidders to compete on the submarine design.
But Turnbull reiterated his view on Monday that Morrison’s conduct had been “shocking” and “disgraceful” and that he “sacrificed Australian honour, security and sovereignty”.
“I said at the time, my message to France and my friend President Macron was that with Mr Morrison, we may have a deceitful prime minister, but we are not a deceitful nation,” Turnbull said.
Asked whether Macron accusing Morrison of lying had played a part in Morrison’s defeat, Turnbull said the biggest issue of the 21 May election had been “the character of the prime minister”.
“If Emmanuel Macron had been the only person he had lied to, it may not have been so consequential – but regrettably that was a big issue, and Macron’s experience was not unique.”
While Peter Dutton, the former defence minister, had been hoping to announce whether Australia would opt for a British or American design within months of the election, the new government is working to the original March 2023 deadline for the joint US and UK study.
Despite speculation the government is weighing up an interim solution – such as acquiring conventional “Son of Collins” submarines from Sweden – the Guardian understands the government is unlikely to announce any such step before the broader Aukus plans are settled.
Labor sees the decision on the nuclear-powered submarines and the timeframe for when they will be operational as crucial to knowing what, if any, capability gap will exist. The government is also planning a broader defence force posture review.