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Mathias Cormann: A tale of two lives

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For the first two decades of his life, Mathias Cormann didn't speak a word of English. His family relied on state and church support but it was the fall of the Berlin Wall that politicised him. Australia's Belgian-born Finance Minister has a back story unlike any other in Federal Parliament, writes Geoff Kitney.

Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann.

Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Mathias Cormann vividly remembers arriving in Australia. It was June 1994, and the 23-year-old Belgian had flown to Perth to meet the family of a girl he had fallen for when studying English in Britain. "I still remember flying from Brussels to Singapore, which is a very long way, and then waiting for quite a while, and then flying for another five hours to Perth," he says, as if recalling some sort of excruciating physical pain. If he'd had to add yet another five hours to get to the east coast, he might have been put off.

But on arrival in Perth he was mesmerised. As author Tim Winton writes, Australia's west coast sits on "the precarious, wondrous edge of things", its light a seductive, translucent beauty. Cormann's first thoughts as he drove along the banks of the sparkling Swan River to a luncheon at a beachside restaurant with panoramic views of the Indian Ocean, were along similar lines. It was breathtaking; it really felt like the edge of the world. "Perth was just amazing to me, and it remains amazing today," he says.

The relationship with the Perth girl didn't last, but Cormann's love of his new country did. Nearly 20 years later, his name will be printed alongside that of Joe Hockey on the May 13 federal budget papers. Cormann will be there as Finance Minister, Hockey as Treasurer, two halves of one of the most important partnerships in government.

National Commission of Audit chair Tony Shepherd joins in the laughter as Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says "I'll be back" while addressing the media at the release of the National Commission of Audit report.

National Commission of Audit chair Tony Shepherd joins in the laughter as Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says "I'll be back" while addressing the media at the release of the National Commission of Audit report. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

It's been a fast rise for a man who is still not widely known by the Australian public – and quite some journey. When Cormann says everybody comes to the job in "their own circumstances", he references a personal story unlike any other in Parliament. While he isn't the only politician with a migrant background, he is the first senior economics minister whose mother tongue is German. Growing up in Raeren, a small town in eastern Belgium, he didn't speak a word of English for the first two decades of his life. His attempts to master his fourth language after German, French and Flemish came only after a solid period studying law in Belgium.

After his initial visit to Australia, Cormann returned to Belgium intending to make a career in law there. But the pull of Perth was palpable and he returned four months later, this time for a summer Christmas. "The sense I had at the time was that everything was so big. There was so much opportunity. It sounds like a cliché but you could literally feel the likelihood that this place was going to develop quite incredibly strongly. At the time I thought, 'Wow, this is great. I want to be part of it.' " He returned to Belgium yet again but Perth loomed ever larger in his head. In July 1996, Cormann formally migrated to Australia, a country none of his family or circle of Belgian friends had ever visited.

A tale in two chapters

Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann, during question time in February.

Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann, during question time in February. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Cormann's life is a story of two chapters. In the first, he helped his mother raise his sisters while his father struggled with illness and alcoholism. As a second-year law student at the impressionable age of 19, he was politicised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. The second chapter saw him swap Belgium for Australia and law for politics. Running through the entire narrative has been his conservative Christian faith.

Sitting in his ministerial office in Parliament House in Canberra, Cormann is matter of fact about his back story. A cautious, disciplined and seemingly unsentimental person, he answers questions in short sentences and emits a slightly forced, staccato laugh when they get too close to the bone. He has got to where he is by stepping lightly, and even close colleagues say that they know little about his pre-Australian life. Yet Cormann is not secretive about his past, responding directly and in detail when asked about his German-Belgian origins. That he is an "unknown" suggests, rather, that it is only dawning on the wider public that a significant new figure has arrived on the national political stage.

Cormann's relationship with Hockey runs deeper than that of many Treasurers and their finance ministers. Hockey is also from an immigrant background: his father was a Bethlehem-born Armenian-Palestinian. Hockey describes Cormann as a safe pair of hands. "He's incredibly good at getting across the detail of his brief. But he also knows what the policy motives are. I regard him as my wingman in a brutal dogfight."

Straight after question time on the days that Federal Parliament sits, Hockey and Cormann slip out of the building to a private courtyard where they chat, each smoking a cigar. They no doubt discuss the budget bottom line, but have more interesting things to talk about, too. Both Hockey and Cormann are proud of their origins. Hockey describes his father as his hero, the man who has most influenced his life. Cormann says he is immensely proud of his father – but for different reasons.

Herbert Cormann was working as a turner in a local factory when he developed health problems. "My father was a very hard worker until serious illness struck him down at a time when he and my mum had four kids under 10," Cormann recalls. Describing it as "a very personal matter", he adds that Herbert became an alcoholic. "It is fair to say that the most challenging time for us as a family was during that time, from when I was 10 to when I was 15." His father overcame that addiction and has not drunk since. "That was a great achievement and something we are all very proud of."

Mathias formed a close bond with his mother. Speaking after her son's appointment as Finance Minister, Heldegard Cormann told Fairfax Media that her son had "learnt everything necessary to look after the other children and to do the housework . . . He became, not like a father exactly, but much more grown up. He organised all the family affairs . . . My son and I always spoke a lot about things. I liked it because he wanted to change things that are not good."

The Cormann household was sustained through these difficult years by a state disability pension and the support of the local church, where Mathias served as an altar boy. He performed altar duties for weddings, and after each one was given a book from the Tintin series by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, books he chose. Cormann still has all 23 books. There are Tintin prints in his ministerial office – alongside a framed, autographed West Coast Eagles football jumper. His Belgian childhood hero was an intrepid, truth-seeking, crime-busting boy reporter; his Australian heroes are men who play a code of football he didn't know existed before he migrated.

Faith remains a strong force in Cormann's life. He is a regular church-goer and his wife, prominent Perth lawyer Hayley Ross, is also a Catholic. Cormann met Ross nine years after he settled in Australia and they have a one-year-old daughter, Isabelle.

The Catholicism with which Cormann grew up reflects the deep conservatism of the German-speaking region of eastern Belgium. Formerly part of Germany, the region was annexed to Belgium under the redrawing of borders that resulted from the Treaty of Versailles. Between the wars, German-speaking nationalists agitated for reunification with Germany. The retaking of Eupen, where Cormann was born, was an important symbol of Adolf Hitler's early military triumphs. Eupen was one of the first towns the Nazis declared to be "free of Jews" after Jewish residents were shipped out to concentration camps. Because of its symbolism, Eupen became a key target for American forces after the D-Day landings in 1944 and the region, including Raeren, was the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Inspired by the fall of the Wall

Cormann's parents were born after World War II, but Cormann says the war had a serious effect on their families. A grand-uncle on his father's side, who had been the editor of a local newspaper, ended up in a concentration camp for publishing anti-Hitler articles. Cormann is acutely aware of the amount of Australian blood spilt on Belgian soil and of the vast fields of white crosses that mark the places where young men – about the age he was when he came to Australia – ended their journeys.

But it was a subsequent war, the Cold War, that profoundly shaped the philosophy and beliefs of the young Mathias. He was a law student in Belgium during the protests that marked the beginning of the end of communism in Europe. The chance to witness a great, historic event propelled him and some of his university friends to jump in a car and hurtle to Berlin just days after the Wall had been breached by huge, cheering crowds. What Cormann observed in Berlin still sits powerfully with him. Looking from the Wall to the East and then to the West, he says he saw why capitalism had triumphed over communism.

"You had two German populations divided by the Wall," he says. "You had millions of people living side by side with the same challenges after the war, the same opportunities, same climate, same geography. All the preconditions were the same. But they were subject to different policy choices and different systems of government. On one side, you could see freedom, reward for effort and encouragement for people to stretch themselves and where that had led.

On the other side you could see where lowest-common-denominator policies had led."

These impressions were reinforced when Cormann studied in England. "There were students there from East Germany who had started to come to west European universities. I spoke to them and it was very obvious: socialism holds people back; policies based on freedom, free choice and reward for effort ultimately lift everyone."

Cormann's mother and father were not interested in politics, he says, but he found himself increasingly drawn to public life. "At some point growing up I developed an interest in current affairs and became more and more conscious of the impact of political systems and decision making on people's quality of life. I developed a sense that I had some capacity to make a positive difference."

Three forces helped stir his political ambition. The first was the decision to study law. The second was the tuition of the Jesuit lecturers at the Catholic University of Namur in Brussels where he took up his legal studies. Cormann says they taught him to question, challenge and argue points of view.

The third was joining a political party – the Christian Social Party in Raeren. Catholic and conservative, it was a natural home for Cormann. He secured a seat on the local council and later, a job with Mathieu Grosch, the party MP who held the seat reserved for German-speaking Belgians in the national parliament. Grosch suggests it was as much Cormann's driving ambition as the delights of Perth that saw him start anew in Australia. "He was my first personal assistant in Brussels; it was obvious he was intelligent, driven and charismatic but also blessed with youthful impatience and full of determination," Grosch said in a statement on Cormann's appointment as Finance Minister. "No road was too far for him to travel to reach his goal."

Whether or not Cormann calculated that he had better prospects for a political career in Australia than in a tiny German-speaking community in Belgium, it became clear after he arrived in Perth that politics offered him the best chance of a career here. His Belgian law degree was not recognised in Australia, so Cormann fired off hundreds of letters to all sorts of potential Perth employers asking for work. All that came of these efforts was a casual job as a gardener.

"What I found was that if you just write letters, people just write back polite replies. I said to myself, 'You have got to be a bit smarter about this.' "

Cormann decided to take a direct approach. With two years' experience as a political assistant to Grosch under his belt and some knowledge of international law and treaties, he approached WA Liberal senator Chris Ellison, who was chairman of the treaties committee in Federal Parliament.

"I rang him and asked for a meeting. I suggested to him I might be able to help as a volunteer while I was trying to find a job. We met, had a chat and essentially just started talking politics. Chris said 'Yep, give it a shot.' Within two weeks somebody on his staff got crook and I got put in as a relief staffer. The rest, as they say, is history."

Serious, savvy and committed

Cormann became a senior adviser to Ellison, who went on to become a minister in the Howard government. Cormann struck Ellison at that first meeting as a serious person of obvious intelligence, with a savvy political brain and a willingness to commit. Ellison was emerging as an increasingly powerful figure in the state Liberal Party. After years of turmoil and ugly factionalism in the WA branch, Howard gave Ellison the task of cleaning out the stables and uniting the party membership. Ellison did well, becoming political godfather to a generation of ambitious Liberals. Eight of his former staff, including Cormann, became state or federal MPs.

Bob Fisher, one of the five members of the Abbott government's National Commission of Audit panel, has known Cormann since soon after he arrived in Australia. Fisher was director-general of the WA Department of Family and Children's Services. In 1997 he met up with the newly appointed minister for the portfolio, Rhonda Parker, who had with her "this tall, good-looking young fellow who talked like Arnold Schwarzenegger". Says Fisher: "I couldn't make this bloke out. Who was he? What was a bright young bloke from Belgium doing in Perth working for a state minister?"

Fisher says he took Cormann out for coffee after the meeting, during which the young political staffer told Fisher he aspired to move into federal politics. "Then you will want to get into the House of Representatives. That's where the action is," Fisher told Cormann. "He said, 'No, Bob. The Senate. With my accent no one would vote for me if I tried to get a seat [in the House].' I thought, 'Wow. This is a young bloke who knows what he wants.' "

Identifying goals and systematically working to achieve them have been hallmarks of Cormann's professional life. At key points in his career he has overtaken potential rivals by clever back-room networking and astute political judgment. His surprise elevation to the cabinet and finance ministry – over the former shadow finance minister and one-time Liberal Party national director Andrew Robb and his presumptive successor Arthur Sinodinos, the influential senior adviser to former prime minister John Howard – marked Cormann as an inside player par excellence.

A key political opponent has been Labor's Senate leader and Cormann's predecessor as finance minister, Penny Wong. Poles apart in policy terms, they have one thing in common. Wong understands Cormann's thinking about the potential political handicap of speaking with a strong German accent. She says she similarly chose the Senate because of her own political handicaps of being Asian, female and a lesbian. She credits Cormann with a seriousness and decency that has seen him rise without appearing thus far to have made many significant enemies. "I assume his views on a whole range of social matters are substantially more conservative than mine. But I think he is disciplined. He's hard working. He's driven."

She and Cormann have engaged in ferocious verbal combat, especially in Senate estimates committees where Cormann conducted forensic inquisitions of the former Labor government's carbon and mining taxes. To the outsider, estimates committee hearings can appear mind-numbingly dull and tedious, which they are if committee members have not done the grinding research necessary to know which rabbit warrens to go down in search of important details.

Cormann did his homework. Those who appeared before him always knew to expect a hard time from him. He says the long hours spent in estimates committee were the best possible training for the job he now has, "because you end up being across the detail of all the issues, all of the arguments, from each side of the argument."

Wong says of those sparring matches: "We have certainly gone toe to toe in many different forums, but I think we are both able to have a chat in a reasonably cordial way outside of the chamber, which is the way I like it. I prefer those political relationships where you can keep some perspective and I've generally found with Mathias that we can have a pretty robust argument but we are still able to have a cordial exchange outside the chamber. Not all senators are like that."

While there were some audible grumbles when Cormann got the finance ministry ahead of Arthur Sinodinos, Abbott's judgment looks to have been vindicated by the entanglement of the assistant treasurer in the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiries. Cormann took on Sindodinos's duties when he stood aside from the frontbench while giving evidence to the commission. One powerful Liberal who might have cause to feel bitter towards Cormann is former Liberal leader and now cabinet colleague Malcolm Turnbull. Cormann was one of three parliamentary secretaries who quit Turnbull's frontbench in November 2009 after they refused to support the Rudd government's carbon pollution reduction scheme, setting in train the internal revolt that led to Abbott replacing Turnbull.

Turnbull insists he holds no grudge against Cormann for the role he played in killing off his leadership and ranks him as one of the most important members of the Abbott team, branding him a powerful contributor to the government's pro-market, pro-free enterprise and smaller government economic agenda. Cormann has been a strong voice arguing the economic rationalist line on agenda-defining decisions on the car industry, the SPC Ardmona fruit cannery and Qantas.

An 'economic dry'

His ministerial colleagues count Cormann as a key "economic dry", a label he is happy to wear. He also proudly calls himself "conservative" rather than "liberal". He has publicly defended Senator Cory Bernardi, the controversial South Australian right winger who has expressed strident views on homosexuality, abortion and other social issues. Asked if he shares Bernardi's views, he says only: "I am a conservative", suggesting his own opinions are not too far removed from Bernardi's. Nevertheless, Cormann has avoided taking publicly controversial positions in what are dubbed the culture wars. His own political agenda is dominated by his free market, small-government, individual freedom philosophy.

Cormann is cautious about linking his political ambition to his upbringing. "I always had this sense that you can make a difference through public service, through politics. I thought that if you didn't take an interest then you weren't able to complain about things that didn't evolve in the direction you thought they should."

As to whether there is a contradiction between his strongly pro-market, small government, budget discipline politics and his family's survival story – his parents were able to make ends meet because of state support in the form of his father's permanent disability pension – Cormann says he's not opposed to a social safety net.

"I genuinely believe that the best way to provide opportunity for everyone is to pursue policies which are based on freedom, free enterprise and reward for effort, lower taxes and smaller government. But ultimately, for sure, you have got to make sure that in every community there is a safety net to support people who are genuinely in need."

Two decades after that first long haul from Brussels to Perth and now with a life deeply entrenched in Australia, Cormann says he still feels strongly connected to his Belgian roots. He drinks Belgian beer: Stella Artois, from Leuven where he went to university. And he still loves mussels and chips, Belgium's national dish. But "Perth is home for me and my family. Travel to visit, yes. Moving back, no." Unlike many immigrants who encourage their Australian-born children to speak the language of their forebears, Cormann does not speak German to his daughter. If she wants to learn it one day that will be her choice, he says.

At the end of a long conversation, the question of ambition arises. How far does he want to go and how much sacrifice is he prepared to make in his family's life? This time, the 43-year-old is a bit more enigmatic. He and Ross have discussed the sacrifices involved in being a West Australian in Federal Parliament, with the long distances it constantly puts between them, but at this stage they are jointly committed to his Canberra career. The family recently moved home from Perth's northern suburbs to south of the Swan River, into the federal seat of Tangney, held by fellow WA Liberal Dennis Jensen. This has sparked speculation that Cormann might be angling to move from the Senate to the House of Representatives.

He denies any such plan but adds a cryptic metaphor to explain how he sees his career: "You climb the mountain until you get as close as you can to the top of the mountain and then you start going down the other side and you go home." So he doesn't know where the climb might end? "Well, the government as a whole is climbing the mountain for Australia. Hopefully that won't end for a long time to come."

A senior colleague and admirer offers a prediction which cautious Cormann would never go near. "I would not be the least bit surprised if he ends up becoming Australia's first German-speaking prime minister. How could you rule it out, given how far he has come already?"

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review Magazine online.

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