mathias cormann
Mathias Cormann (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Australia’s longest-serving finance minister Mathias Cormann, the last member of the original Abbott cabinet still at his post, is resigning from politics. 

The Belgian-born, Flemish-speaking Liberal senator once had an incredible reputation in political circles, described as a “powerhouse”, great communicator and respected financier — until he didn’t.  

Crikey takes a look at the rise and fall of Cormann.

2013: ‘The Cormmantator’

Crikey revealed Cormann had been given the nickname “The Cormmantator” by his colleagues. His accent sounds a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, and he did love to comment.

He was also dubbed the “muscles from Brussels”, a nickname he embraced, as well as the “­Belgian bulldozer“.

Cormann oozed respectability. While covering the financial services portfolio for the opposition, Liberal strategist Mark Textor described him as “a good communicator familiar to Western Australian voters” and The Australian Financial Review noted he was “respected in the wealth management sector for his ability on detailed policy issues”.

2014-2016: Rising and relentless

Cormann’s star was rising, as senior Liberals gushed about his reliability:

“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.”

Joe Hockey in The Sydney Morning Herald, May 2014

“In Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Turnbull and Morrison have parliament’s most relentless and driven negotiator.”

Andrew Probyn, The West Australian, September 2016

In a soft profile published by Perth Now in December, Cormann was described as a “family man, banker, negotiator …  one of Australia’s most powerful politicians.”

In that story, WA Education Minister Peter Collier described Cormann’s “enormous respect and support from most members of the party due to his political mind and judgment”, noting that his influence “cannot be overstated,”.

Seasoned political commentator Laurie Oakes described Cormann as Turnbull’s “go-to man”, with a reputation as an “effective negotiator with minor parties”. 

2017: The man for the job?

In 2017 Cormann’s power was growing in his home state, with Crikey’s Bernard Keane even listing seven reasons Cormann should be prime minister.

“He’s disciplined … hardworking … has a good political antenna,” Keane wrote. 

But that effusive praise began to decline after Cormann backed Pauline Hanson’s “It’s OK to be white” motion in the senate in October — an action Turnbull, who was prime minister at the time, called “regrettable”. 

2018-2019: A snake emerges

It was perhaps the most iconic image of Turnbull’s overthrow by his Liberal colleagues: in August 2018, Cormann stood alongside Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fifield to announce that the trio was switching its support from Turnbull to Peter Dutton. 

This from the man who had been consistently described as Turnbull’s “strongest ally”.

And when more details about the spill emerged in mid-2019, Cormann was named as the “real culprit behind Turnbull’s demise” who delivered the “mortal wound” to Turnbull’s leadership. 

“The most disloyal man in politics.”

Julie Bishop in Plots and Prayers by Niki Savva, July 2019

Political commentator Niki Savva also quoted other politicians in her book, including Dutton, who accused Cormann of “gaming” and “masterminding” the coup. 

2020: Turnbull’s book reveals all

Then, earlier this year, came Turnbull’s book. In it, the former PM revealed Cormann’s criticism of Morrison — he allegedly called the current prime minister “emotional, narcissistic and untrustworthy” — and text messages that showed Cormann telling Turnbull he was not part of any planned conspiracy or insurgency. “I genuinely backed you,” Cormann wrote.

“Mathias, at a time when strength and loyalty were called for, you were weak and treacherous,” Turnbull wrote back. 

Last month, Savva called Cormann the man who “used to be somebody”: “Not so much now,” she wrote. 

From a rising star, savvy operator, widely respected across the aisle as a politician of integrity, Mathais Cormann’s political epitaph now reads: he knifed his prime minister in the back.

Peter Fray

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