October 12, 2020

The view from Billinudgel

Job seeker

By Mungo MacCallum

Mathias Cormann makes his valedictory speech. Image via Twitter

Scott Morrison wants to launch Mathias Cormann onto the global stage

Following Mathias Cormann’s long and successful run in the provinces, Scott Morrison believes his retiring finance minister is ready to take on the world, nominating him for the prestigious role of secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This is the big one: the OECD is where the real movers and shakers strut their stuff. So it would be a giant leap for a man who has never come higher than third in the hierarchy of Australia’s Liberal–National Coalition.

For many years Cormann has orbited the top tier – on one memorable occasion he was filmed smoking cigars with one of his senior colleagues. But, for all his undoubted talents, he has always been the supporting act, the sideman to the lead singer, a step or two behind the treasurer. The promotion Morrison envisages may well show the Peter principle at work, promoting Cormann past his level of competence.

The prime minister trusts him, however. He was, after all, a key element in Morrison’s own ascent, through what Morrison’s predecessor Malcolm Turnbull called a betrayal. And, during his record term as finance minister, Cormann has regularly been brought forward as a spokesman for the government in times of need.

He was not particularly eloquent, and far from riveting. But he was utterly reliable and never missed a beat. Relentless, remorseless and endlessly repetitive, he reinforced the message through his robotic recitation of Coalition talking points.

Over time, even his thick Belgian accent was seen to be almost endearing – surely a man speaking in a second (or third, or fourth) language had to be sincere. Otherwise why would he make the effort? And anyway, there was no point in querying him. Cormann was never for turning.

Whether this persistence – some would call it stubbornness – would be an advantage in the more nuanced and diplomatic ambience of the OECD is yet to be seen. But if he gets the nod – and Morrison, for one, seems convinced that he will – Cormann will be seen as a winner.

And given our ongoing sense of cultural cringe, he will then receive accolades as an Australian hero: the immigrant gardener who rose from the suburbs of Perth to the penthouses of Paris, the little Aussie (well, almost) battler who beat all comers to rise to the very top of the international totem pole.

So, roll on the Cormann caravan. On the national state he will be remembered for his longevity, but not much else, and not through a lack of diligence but because it went with the job. As finance minister, his role has always been like that of Dr No: the guardian of the government vault, the skinflint who retrains and curtails the proposals of his more enthusiastic colleagues.

Publicly, at least, Cormann has always been more spin than substance. But that is probably why he has been regarded with such reverence by his Coalition colleagues. After all, isn’t that what this government is all about?

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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