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

Mathias Cormann never got to deliver the surplus he worked so hard in government to achieve over seven years. In fact, he leaves behind Australia’s biggest ever deficit, by a huge distance.

That’s crucial to supporting the economy, he rightly argues, and it that has been enabled by the government’s previous fiscal discipline. But it’s hard not to feel some sympathy that the work Cormann put in from 2013 onwards was never paid off with a surplus, even a token one. A tiny deficit was the closest he got in 2019. Then COVID-19 came and changed the world.

As Crikey routinely noted throughout his time as steward of the nation’s finances, the government’s slow reduction in the deficit — far slower than Joe Hockey had promised in 2013 — was mainly driven by the Liberals’ passion for higher taxes. Inheriting a tax:GDP ratio of 21.3% of GDP, the government jacked that up first above 22%, and then to 23% in 2019.

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It’s much easier to get back to surplus when you have an extra 3% of GDP in tax receipts compared to what your predecessors had to deal with.

But Cormann’s fiscal discipline also played an important role. He kept real spending growth below 2% a year — something the Howard government only managed once in its last two terms — all the way until Scott Morrison let spending rip in a successful effort to buy the 2019 election.

The finance minister managed that while being a ministerial scrabble blank for Abbott and Turnbull, with more than 18 months’ worth of stints as special minister of state in addition to finance, plus a lengthy spell as assistant treasurer. That was in addition to the deputy leadership of the government in the Senate from 2015-17 and leadership from 2017.

In that role, Cormann was superior in every way to his predecessor George Brandis. A skilled negotiator with the cross-bench, Cormann was indefatigable in pursuing deals to secure passage of legislation with a variety of minor parties and independents — it was no coincidence that with Cormann in Senate leadership positions, the government’s record of passing more difficult legislation significantly improved from the Abbott era of “zombie measures” lasting multiple budgets.

Unlike Brandis, Cormann’s opponents respected and trusted him as a negotiator and Senate leader; it says much that he was able to maintain a friendship with his opposite, predecessor as finance minister and estimates tormentor Penny Wong.

A key part of Cormann’s skill was his discipline. It wasn’t so much the Schwarzeneggerian accent that made for a Terminator comparison, it was his robotic adherence to talking points and the government’s key messages, no matter what. His gaffes and stumbles were few and far between, even when bone-tired and delivering the day’s messages as election spokesman — though he once confused Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull and delivered a ringing endorsement of the former rather than the latter during the 2016 campaign.

There was that cigar just before the 2014 budget. And his admission that wage stagnation reflected a “deliberate” feature of the industrial relations system was also seized on by critics, which chagrined him immensely. But otherwise he was always annoyingly, boringly flawless in sticking to his messages, in a way no other politician in Australian history has managed.

Katharine Murphy once wondered whether, as the governments he formed part of stumbled from crisis to crisis and his colleagues melted down in public, Cormann delivered his lines perfectly and then went into a small room and screamed.

The discipline, the hard work, the focus on longer term goals, and the constant subbing into other portfolios made Cormann the rock of a government that churned through three leaders and three treasurers and seemed permanently one crisis away from disintegration.

Eventually Cormann himself cracked under the pressure generated by his party’s tensions, famously resigning from the Turnbull ministry not because Peter Dutton had the numbers (it would turn out Dutton and his backers were innumerate) but because — he says — he believed Turnbull’s continuation as leader would keep the turmoil brewing in the party.

Turnbull says Cormann told him “you have to give in to the terrorists”, which if not true, is an accurate summation of Cormann’s stated reasons.

Whether the lurid claims about Cormann being part of a Dutton putsch from the outset have any truth or not, Cormann’s role in the Turnbull ouster left a major blot on the record of the man who for much of the Coalition’s five years in government had been the only adult in the room.

So Cormann departs, like so many Western Australians on all sides of politics, exhausted by the travel from Perth and the constant absences from his young family — incessant travel has curtailed many political careers, good, bad and indifferent, from the west. But he leaves with the sense that he never quite enjoyed the full benefits of his work and discipline.

If he’d been in the lower house he’d have made a fine Liberal leader and prime minister — socially conservative like Abbott, but without the latter’s bizarre obsessions and 12th century mindset; less brilliant and innovative than Turnbull, but more disciplined and consistent; and a man of substance compared to Morrison — whose self-promotion, at least according to Turnbull, Cormann couldn’t abide as treasurer.

Labor has caught flack for backing Cormann for the secretary-generalship of the OECD, but he’d be the best former pollie this government sent abroad — and god knows it has sent plenty of them.

A German-speaking Belgian with a political career in Europe before he moved to Perth because he loved the place, Cormann represents the best of Australia’s multicultural and immigration history. Simon Birmingham can succeed him as finance minister and Senate leader, but no one in this government can replace him.