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8 things you didn’t know about Mathias Cormann

Jessica Yun
·5-min read
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 08: Minister for Finance Senator Mathias Cormann (R) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference in the Main Committee room at Parliament House on October 08, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. Prime Minister Morrison has announced that Minister for Finance Senator Mathias Cormann will become Australia’s candidate for Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with Senator Simon Birmingham undertaking the role of Leader of the Government in the Senate and Senator Michaelia Cash will become Deputy Leader. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Mathias Cormann is the new OECD chief. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Mathias Cormann has made headlines recently after he snared the job of secretary-general designate of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The former Australian Finance Minister and father of two has been catapulted to the global stage after he pipped former European Union trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström for the job.

If you don’t know much about the 50-year-old, here’s a bit more on his background and some of his credentials.

He’s the longest-serving Finance Minister in Australia

Cormann spent seven years and 42 days as Australia’s Minister for Finance before he announced in early July 2020 that he would resign in October. He was first appointed to the position under Tony Abbott, and has seen the job through three prime ministers so far (Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison).

He was succeeded by Simon Birmingham, who is the former Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister.

He was born in Belgium

Cormann was born on 20 September 1970 in a Belgian village called Raeren, which sits just 5km away from the border of Germany.

He’s the oldest child, and the only son, born to his parents HIldegard and Herbert.

When Cormann was young, his father was hospitalised for six months and unable to work. The family relied on a disability pension and assistance from the local Catholic church.

He didn’t speak English until he was 23

Young Cormann learnt French as a second language during secondary school, and would go on to learn Dutch when he studied law at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, a Dutch-speaking Belgian university.

He picked up English as his fourth language when he studied in England in 1993.

Watching the Berlin Wall fall inspired him to go into politics

As a second-year law student at University of Namur, a Catholic private university, Cormann jumped into a car in 1989 with some friends from university to Berlin to see the Berlin Wall fall.

He cites this incident as sparking his interest in politics, which he has carried over from Belgium to Australia.

He initially came to Australia for a girlfriend

During an exchange to Norwich, England at the University of East Anglia at the age of 22, Cormann met and dated an Australian woman. In June the following year, he flew Down Under to visit the woman and her Perth-based family.

The pair eventually broke up – but he enjoyed Perth so much that, after completing his studies in Belgium, he made the choice to permanently relocate to Australia.

“Perth was just amazing to me, and it remains amazing today,” Cormann told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014.

On Australia Day in 2000, Cormann officially became an Australian citizen, and automatically lost his Belgian citizenship in the process.

His first job in Australia was as a gardener

In 1996, the law graduate settled in Perth. But because Belgian law degrees weren’t recognised in Australia, he took his first job as a gardener at Presbyterian Ladies’ College.

He got a foot in the door in Australian politics when he cold-called then-WA Senator Chris Ellison and asked to work as a volunteer in his office. This effort earned him a paid staffer job two weeks later.

He’s played a crucial role in leadership party spills

In the leadership spill of 2018, Cormann swore his loyalty to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and stood alongside him when he said would “continue to serve him loyally into the future”.

But the following day, he – along with fellow cabinet ministers Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash – publicly withdrew their support and offered their resignations from cabinet.

He resumed the job of Finance Minister once Morrison became Prime Minister.

Many tried and failed to kill his shot at the OECD job

Though Cormann has now secured the top job at the OECD, there were some people who didn’t want to see him get the role – including Turnbull.

Last week, when the selection process was still underway, nearly 30 climate and environmental groups penned an open letter calling for the Paris-based organisation not to choose him for the role, arguing he didn’t have a track record for encouraging climate action.

The open letter, distributed through Greenpeace, said Cormann’s “public record … should preclude him” from being selected’.

“Between 2013 and 2020 Mr Cormann served as Finance Minister in the Australian government - a government that has persistently failed to take effective action to reduce emissions at home and has consistently acted as a blocker within international forums,” the letter states.

“On the basis of his record in office, it must be considered highly unlikely that Mr Cormann would play an effective role in advocating for ambitious action in reducing emissions among OECD nations.”

Signatories to the letter include groups such as Climate Action Network International, the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, the International Trade Union Confederation, Greenpeace International and Australia, Climate Action Network Australia, and more.

“We do not believe he is a suitable candidate for Secretary-General of the OECD and urge you to not select him for this critically important position.”

But it wasn’t just environmental groups; his former boss, Malcolm Turnbull, also tried to torpedo Cormann’s candidacy, and reached out directly to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and “senior people in the US” to do so, as reported in the AFR.

Cormann has singled out climate change as a key challenge and promised to help nations achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050, a pledge he has reportedly never made during his time in Australian politics.

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