The departures from senior government positions of Coalition cabinet ministers, Mathias Cormann and Christopher Pyne will be separated by more than 18 months by the time Cormann retires at the end of this year. Pyne left in May 2019. But Cormann's early announcement and Pyne's public resurgence through a book, The Insider, and a podcast, Pyne Time, make them seem contemporaneous.
They are, of course, linked not just by their cabinet service from 2013 onward, but by their key roles in the leadership coup of August 2018 which deposed Malcolm Turnbull for Scott Morrison. Cormann took the momentous decision to desert Turnbull to back Dutton, while Pyne made the subsequent call to back Morrison over the moderate Julie Bishop to ensure Dutton's defeat on second preferences.
There are two separate ways to interpret the departures of Pyne and Cormann. These explanations can coexist. The first is to celebrate and examine their government service, while the second is to see their departures as premature, a reflection on turbulent Liberal Party politics.
They are part of the post-coup Liberal diaspora, which included Bishop. Both men seem satisfied with their decisions and have every right to be fulfilled by their political lives. They each had long parliamentary careers and have made the decision to depart in plenty of time for another long career. They are both still young. Cormann is 49 and Pyne is 52.
They are also both lawyers and in different senses outsiders who have made good. Cormann, a German-speaking Belgian citizen migrated to Australia as a 25-year-old in 1996, by which time Pyne was already in Parliament. Cormann, who had been politically active in Belgium, rose within the Western Australian Liberal Party with amazing speed. Pyne overcame a sitting member, Ian Wilson, part of the Wilson dynasty, to win preselection and as a South Australian came from outside the party's inner circle.
Pyne entered the House of Representatives as the member for Sturt in suburban Adelaide as a precocious 25-year-old in 1993 and departed 26 years later after spending almost his whole adult life as a parliamentarian. His promotion, along with other republican moderates, was initially stalled by John Howard before becoming Minister for Ageing in 2007.
He persevered and ended up with a substantial ministerial career in important cabinet positions after first becoming Manager of Opposition Business in the House in February 2009. He left parliament as Minister for Defence and Leader of the House after previous service as Minister for Education and Training and then Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science. That is a top-shelf political career. He was known informally as The Fixer and the Minister for Submarines.
Cormann entered the Senate for Western Australia in 2007 and became Australia's longest serving Finance Minister, 2013 to 2020, a record he was particularly proud of. Since 2017 he has also been the Leader of the Government in the Senate. He too was a fixer and earned a considerable reputation as a successful negotiator with the crossbench senators.
This skill has been crucial to successive Coalition governments in easing contentious legislation through the Senate when the government lacked a majority. Even before 2018, the two men had plenty of experience in the divisive and faction-ridden world of Liberal Party politics.
As a leading moderate, Pyne clashed with Prime Minister Tony Abbott over the government's plans to insist on a plebiscite on same sex marriage rather than a parliamentary vote. He was particularly outraged when Abbott called a joint Liberal-National party meeting to shore up his opposition to same sex marriage rather than a Liberal party room meeting alone. Pyne lambasted Abbott's move as an unethical fix.
They were both proud of achievements on behalf of their states. Pyne fought long and hard for locating the controversial submarine industry in South Australia, and Cormann boasted, when announcing his forthcoming retirement, of his role in rejigging GST payments to Western Australia. All this adds up to two substantial political careers, but the question remains whether Australia would have been better off if they had stayed longer.
It is becoming commonplace for parliamentary careers to start and end young. Political turbulence undoubtedly adds to the pressure on political lives and wears politicians out just as much as the job itself. Cormann's public reputation suffered badly from his decision to shift his support from Turnbull to Dutton. It effectively signed Turnbull's death warrant. Turnbull has been unforgiving of Morrison's judgement and while Cormann says he has no regrets the whole episode was extremely painful and damaging.
Pyne's logic was that Bishop, despite her capacity and experience, was too moderate and lacked enough personal support to beat Dutton. Backing Morrison ensured that Dutton would lose. Pyne urged the moderate faction to switch their primary votes from Bishop to Morrison, confident that Bishop's second preferences would then flow on to Morrison to defeat Dutton. That too strained friendships.
Cormann and Pyne are significant second-level casualties of the August 2018 Liberal Party leadership coup. It almost certainly played a part in their early departures, along with many others. The reasons were mixed but the toxicity within the party was part of the story. No party has such a depth of talent that it can afford to lose experienced ministers at the height of their powers, whatever their reasons.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University