Flat White

Mathias Cormann owes his big break to Tony Abbott

13 March 2021

4:19 PM

13 March 2021

4:19 PM

I’ve known Mathias Cormann the better part of twenty years.  When I was a senior adviser to Tony Abbott as health minister, Cormann was an executive at WA health fund HBF, brimming with ideas to make that much-derided grudge purchase, private health insurance, more attractive and affordable, and his fund more competitive in an overcrowded and over-regulated market.  I connected him with Abbott — who had previously met Cormann in Liberal party circles but didn’t really know him — about those ideas.

A few years later, when Cormann became a senator, he had a ready-made friend in cabinet in Abbott. And when a few years after that, Abbott did what Malcolm Turnbull hadn’t: he put Cormann on his frontbench where, for the term of the Gillard government he had several roles in the outer shadow ministry, including assistant Treasurer.

Over a drink shortly before the 2013 election, Cormann confided to me he was hopeful he might get the Resources portfolio if the Coalition won. After all, he is a Western Australian and Western Australia is big on resources. But he also said he’d be grateful to get any ministry, let alone a cabinet job.

But Abbott had other ideas. He saw something in Cormann that perhaps even Cormann himself didn’t. So it was that the diligent junior shadow minister, who was just happy to in the frontbench team, was catapulted not only into cabinet, but the economically and politically-crucial role of finance minister. Abbott’s pairing of Cormann with new Treasurer Joe Hockey was inspired; it used Cormann’s smarts, economic literacy, work ethic and willingness to be more in the backroom keeping things humming, with Hockey’s flair for the media and promoting the government (and himself) but a tendency to be bored by details and doing the hard yards.

That Cormann is personable — an asset for any Finance minister, given that saying ‘no’ to their colleagues is a key part of the job — also helped him politically in the role. As his authority grew, he also became the government’s Senate whisperer, mastering the ultimate cat-herding job of negotiating key government legislation through the egos and vanities of successive Senate crossbenches. He inevitably made enemies along the way – such is the nature of parliamentary and Liberal party internal politics – but he made far more friends, winning respect from even his most determined political opponents, such as Labor’s Penny Wong who ideologically is his antithesis.

And I can attest that he stays faithful to those littler people, like me, who helped him on the way up, even as he scaled the heights of politics, and now the OECD. Not all politicians show that sort of loyalty.

It was that Cormann’s seven years in finance led to his reaching the OECD summit today, a campaign won in typical Cormann style. He worked tirelessly, planned carefully, was open to advice, met everyone he could notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the Covid pandemic, and had the confidence of a strong support team. While the final vote’s being labelled an ‘upset’, it didn’t surprise me Cormann successfully won over a majority of the 38 country votes he needed.

Cormann worked hard for this outcome, and proved the truth of the Liberal party’s faith in reward for effort. But had it not been for then-new PM Abbott giving him his big break back in 2013, none of this would have ever happened. Abbott backed Cormann on a hunch and Cormann delivered for him, as he subsequently did for Turnbull and Scott Morrison.

Mathias Cormann’s winning the OCED director-generalship is the ultimate result of Abbott’s people judgment and instinct. He chose well: the result of Cormann’s campaign is a great credit to both of them.

Terry Barnes edits our Morning Double Shot newsletter, adding his daily comment to the best of our Australia and world articles. Sign up for your Morning Double Shot here.

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