Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
Date: Friday, 9 October 2020
MATHIAS CORMANN: Mr President, each significant occasion for me in this chamber, from the moment I started sitting in that seat right up the back—the moment when I gave my first speech, every budget—my wife, Hayley, would be in the chamber with me, and that was always very special. She would like to have been here today, but we live in the sort of time when what seemed entirely straightforward when I first joined this chamber is not straightforward right now. Travel logistics between Perth and Canberra, which were straightforward for a very long time, are anything but, in terms of flight connections and in terms of capacity to re-enter your own state after you've come to a place like Canberra. So, sadly, my amazing wife, who has carried much of the burden for me to be able to do this job over the last 13½ years, is not here today and our two beautiful children, Isabelle and Charlotte, are not here today. That is a small regret as I now start to give what is going to be my final speech in this chamber.
How good is Australia! I know that in more-recent times this sentence has been assumed by somebody more famous than me, but let me say that for as long as I've lived in Australia, from the moment I arrived here in 1996 as a migrant from Belgium, I have often said, 'How good is Australia,' because this is truly a country where, wherever you come from—whatever corner of the world—if you come with the right attitude and with the intention to have a go, work hard and do the best you can in your chosen field of endeavour, there is really and truly no limit to what you can achieve. The proof is in the pudding here in the Senate. We've got a leader of the opposition and a leader of the government who are both first-generation Australians from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Mr President, how good is Australia. I don't think that there would be any other country in the world where this would be possible.
I have thoroughly loved my time in the Senate. I love this place. We come here with a whole diversity of perspectives, with different views and with different aspirations, and we represent many, many Australians with different views and aspirations. And in this chamber we engage in the battle of ideas, we engage in political combat, and we engage in the personality contest every now and then. But in the end, this is a chamber where, on behalf of the nation, by engaging in the policy debate we are able to achieve a consensus on the best way forward. In that process, I've always been a very enthusiastic participant, both in opposition and in government. I've found it to be more fun in government, I've got to say.
PENNY WONG: Rub it in!
MATHIAS CORMANN: I've had an interjection from the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Mr President. I think I might have to take a point of order here. My friend Penny—
MATHIAS CORMANN: There's probably nobody in this parliament with whom I've sparred more vigorously and engaged more vigorously in the political battle of ideas than Senator Wong, yet we do have a deep personal friendship, which I'm sure she won't mind me saying publicly, and we do trust each other. How good is it to work that way, where you can not give an inch in fighting for what you believe in but also work with each other to find practical and pragmatic solutions where that is in the interests of the nation? Senator Wong, that has always been how we've both approached it, and I very much appreciate that about you. We've been on opposite sides in Senate estimates for many, many years, first from opposition and then from government. I've got to say, I enjoyed that better from government too! I've decided I am more of a batsman than a bowler, and I'm happy that I don't have to go back into a bowling session.
Mr President, when I came here in 1996 I never thought I'd end up in politics. You can't plan this. I thought I'd go and work in a law firm, in a business, or whatever. I tried to get a job in Perth when I arrived. Back in the mid-nineties, the legal fraternity in Western Australia was still comparatively protectionist in terms of the capacity of law graduates who were from a non-English-speaking background or who were non-Australian-educated to get into the legal profession. It intrigued me when, years later, my wife, Hayley, started working at Clayton Utz—it was in the mid-2000s—and people were bending over backwards to facilitate people through the process as quickly as possible, from wherever they came. Ten years earlier, they'd said I had to go back to university for another two years, after I had done six years of university already. That didn't seem that appealing to me at the time, so I ended up working as a staffer for a politician. That was the only immediately transferable skill, where there wasn't any protectionism in place, that I could deploy in the short term.
That was not necessarily all that straightforward initially either. A former senator, Alan Eggleston, in 1996 advertised for an electorate officer. I applied for that job and I didn't even get an interview—which I've reminded him of often since then! I thought, 'There's got to be a better way,' so I rang the office of the recently elected Senator Chris Ellison, who'd recently been made the chair of the treaties committee. I thought: 'Oh well, it's the treaties committee. I've done some public international law, and I'm international.' 'Treaties' sounded international, so I thought I'd go and have a meeting with him and see whether I could do some work for him as a volunteer. I think he was a bit intrigued when this guy—I was young, skinny and had black hair back then—with a German accent walked in and offered to work as a volunteer. But he took a chance on me, and the rest, as they say, is history. That is how I ended up in the Australian parliament, as a Belgian migrant, in October 1996—24 years ago. I've essentially, one way or another, been around this place ever since, and it has just been an amazing story, an amazing opportunity to contribute to public service through political service.
We all come here with our own personal political and policy values and perspectives. Some of my colleagues have heard me tell this story before—in fact my Liberal-National colleagues heard me tell this story yesterday—but I think I have to put it on the record here. The thing that really persuaded me to pursue the policy and political values that are pursued by the Liberal and National parties was my experience as a student when I reflected, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, on the reason why a people—who, after the Second World War, started with the same challenges, opportunities, context, climate and geography—divided by different political and policy choices ended up in such fundamentally different positions when it came to their quality of life, their living standards and the general opportunities for individuals, their families and the communities in which they lived. Really, the choice on the western side of the wall, on the western side of Germany, was a choice to pursue policies that supported individual freedom, free enterprise and reward for effort, encouraging people to stretch themselves, take risks and have a go, and all of that underpinned with a social safety net. They called it the social market economy—the soziale Marktwirtschaft.
But the other thing that West Germany did—and that is also something that has always stuck with me—was they opened themselves up to the world. They engaged in open trade. They committed themselves to international competition. They committed themselves to being an outward-looking, globally focused, open, trading economy. And that is where the economic miracle on the western side of Germany came from—that's where the Wirtschaftswunder came from—whereas, on the eastern side, where you had policy choices in the political system that focused on socialism and equality of outcomes, which ultimately led to a lowest-common-denominator focus, people ended up in comparative poverty.
The wall was built only in 1961. From 1949, they were on different trajectories. By 1961, the wall had to be built to keep people on one side in the system because people didn't want to spontaneously stay there. And then, 28 years later, even the wall wasn't enough to keep people in, because, ultimately, people have a thirst for freedom. And the wall came down.
The other thing that I learned was the power of the trajectory. Commentators and political opponents at various times have laughed at me when I've talked about the power of the trajectory. But think about this: the people of East Berlin wouldn't have noticed on day one or two or five that they were on a different trajectory to the people of West Berlin, but, when you're on a different trajectory for 40 years and you're making bad choices as opposed to good choices, when you look back after 40 years, the destination you end up in can be fundamentally different. Some people have said, 'Oh well, that's because on one side it was a dictatorship and it was an autocratic political system, and that's why people weren't enjoying the same living standards.' But that fails to understand what is cause and what is effect. The reason the system became more and more dictatorial and more and more autocratic was because they had to exercise more and more control on those people who didn't want to spontaneously live in a system that restricted their freedoms.
Fast-forward to Australia: Australia in the 1980s, in the era post the Hawke and Keating governments, then the Howard government and subsequent governments, leading all the way to the Morrison government now—since Australia has made a decision to open ourselves up to the world, to be a globally focused, open, trading economy, we have gone from strength to strength. We've gone through a period of nearly 30 years of continuous growth, on the back of making the difficult decisions, nearly 40 years ago, of opening ourselves up to global competition. Yes, there have been difficult transitions, and of course it wasn't all easy, but it has made Australia stronger and more prosperous, and it has given the Australian people better opportunities to get ahead and to have the best possible living standards.
International competition can be uncomfortable. This is a debate that is taking place in the world now. There can be a temptation to say, 'Wouldn't it be so much more comfortable if we protect ourselves from global competition and if we put fences around various activities so that people don't have to worry about being challenged?' The problem with that is just by putting a fence around something, just by protecting something, doesn't mean that the innovation and the competitive forces elsewhere stop. All it means is that you lose touch with where the rest of the world is at. All it means is that you fall further behind. So, as we work on getting out of this COVID recession, we've got to make sure, as a nation, that we continue to remember what has made us so strong: over 30 years of continuous growth. It has been a genuine commitment—which has been a bipartisan commitment—to Australia as a globally focused, open trading economy. That has been for over 30 years so far, and it will be in the future, the best way for Australia to offer the best possible opportunities for Australians today and into the future to get ahead.
During my time in this chamber, in opposition and in government, I've been involved in a whole series of policy battles. You win some; you lose some. But I've always been an enthusiastic and vigorous contributor in those various debates and battles. I guess the other thing I've learned in this place is that sometimes what you are able to stop can be as important as what you are able to put in place. One of the proud moments of my career was to be able to put the detailed and forensic scrutiny over the anti-WA mining tax, which a previous government sought to impose—99 per cent of the revenue of which was going to come out of one jurisdiction. It is a moment of great personal pride that we were able to repeal that particular legislation on coming into government.
In coming into parliament, I've always looked at the period in opposition as the training period to prepare you in the best possible way to be able to make a meaningful contribution in government, if and when you get the opportunity to serve in government. In the Senate, I've got to say, the Senate estimates process is an amazing way to be trained as a future contributor in executive government, because you get to know all the people, you get to know all the issues and, if you apply yourself to asking all of the possible questions, it is an amazing way to get across a lot of details. It's the ultimate on-the-job university-level training, I would say. So, on coming into government in 2013, and looking back since 2013, I am proud that, as a government, we have been able to repair the budget to the point where by 2018-19—the great budget of 2018-19, hey, Prime Minister!—we had returned the budget back into balance. We had, over the period between 2013 and 2023, prior to the coronavirus crisis hitting us, passed and implemented budget bottom line improvements to the tune of $250 billion. So what that means is the bottom line would have been $250 billion worse off over that period if we hadn't made the decisions and hadn't legislated the decisions that we've put forward in various budgets.
Now, I've been involved in seven budgets, seven half-yearly budget updates, eight final budget outcomes and a couple of Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlooks, and that is a pretty involved process. I mean, every budget, every half-yearly budget update—Simon, you'll find out!—is a lot of meetings in rooms without windows. It's a lot of papers to read through. It's a lot of conversations with colleagues. It's a lot of conversations within the Expenditure Review Committee with a view of trying to make the best possible decision for the future of Australia. It's a fine balance. You want to make decisions to allocate resources, where that is appropriate, as much as necessary or as little as possible—Simon!—and you want to make sure that the expenditure is effective in achieving the policy objective that you're pursuing as a government. But you also are always very mindful that if you don't get this prioritisation right there are real consequences for real people. In particular this year, 2020, as we were hit with the coronavirus crisis and we had to make so many decisions on things like JobKeeper, JobSeeker and so on, we were very, very conscious of—and it was mentally and emotionally quite a heavy burden to really think through—what this meant for real people.
Over this period the successful legislation of personal income tax cuts in 2018 and 2019 to the value now of $350 billion, putting more money into workers' pockets and helping to stimulate the economy and generate growth by boosting aggregate demand, is one of my personal highlights in terms of legislation going through the Senate during this period. It was quite hotly contested the first two times, but it was comparatively easy today to bring these income tax cuts forward. And there were various savings bills.
One of the things I want to reflect on—this is something where the coalition and the Greens came together—is Senate voting reform. Before we reformed the Senate voting system there was this lottery where, somehow, 97 per cent of people who voted 1 above the line immediately lost control of their preferences. Those preferences were traded by so-called preference whisperers who were doing deals, behind closed doors, which weren't transparent at all. The reforms that we passed were reforms that empowered voters to determine not only where their first preference would go if they voted above the line but also where their second, third and subsequent preferences would go above the line. So, instead of people getting elected to the Senate with very low numbers of votes, whatever our views on the views of individual senators representing in this chamber now, the people who are here are here because a sufficient number of Australians backed them in. They are here because they reflect the views and aspirations of a sufficient number of Australians, not because of some accidental lottery based on a backroom deal.
There was 40 hours of debate—including one debate through the night; I think we started on a Thursday afternoon at 4.30 or five o'clock and we went straight through to two o'clock the next afternoon—and the Labor Party was running a roster against me! Every hour, I think, we had quorum calls and motions to suspend the Senate, and everybody turned up. This is where I've got to say: what a fantastic team I've had the privilege to work with here in the Senate. We've been involved in many battles for the nation, and we've won many good battles for the nation that will put Australia on a stronger foundation trajectory for the future for some time to come.
I'm proud of my work—which is perhaps not as well known, but Senator Wong knows about it—with the Australia-Germany Advisory Group. One of the jobs I was given by then Prime Minister Abbott in 2014 at the G20 Leaders' Summit, when we had a bilateral meeting with Chancellor Merkel, was to co-chair the Australia-Germany Advisory Group to explore ways to broaden, deepen and strengthen the bilateral relationship with Germany. Germany is the biggest economic power in Europe and the fourth-biggest economic power in the world. We had friendly relations, but we weren't really top of mind with each other; it was very long distance. Germany is a very important economy in Europe, and Europe is a very important economy—perhaps one that historically we accessed primarily through the United Kingdom, because of obvious historical ties. The work that we did to strengthen our relationship with Germany—and with France, and with other countries on the continent—will stand us in good stead moving forward as we now pursue a trade agreement separately with the European Union and with the United Kingdom post the Brexit vote in the UK.
I'm mindful of time, and I don't want to hold everybody up for too long, but quickly: at a WA level, other than being able to get rid of the mining tax, there was GST reform and the reform of GST-sharing arrangements—making sure that we delivered a fairer, better deal for Western Australia—in a way that was good for the country and which encouraged and facilitated stronger national growth. It was also good for every other state, because we calibrated the arrangements such that no other state was worse off. In fact, states were better off. That is a real credit to Scott Morrison as Treasurer. He worked with his Liberal colleagues from WA; he worked really hard and really smart to come up with a creative way of delivering the outcome, and the people of Western Australia will be forever grateful for the work you did there, Prime Minister.
The Western Australia state government and my good friend, the Treasurer of Western Australia, Ben Wyatt, delivered his budget in Western Australia yesterday. He delivered a $1.2 billion surplus—not bad in a pandemic, I guess! But do you know how much the GST top-up payment is as a result of our reforms this financial year? It's $1.5 billion. A $1.2 billion surplus and a $1.5 billion GST top-up payment, courtesy of the Morrison reforms to the GST-sharing arrangements, put it very starkly, I thought. And, with my colleagues, I've also been proud to have been able to help deliver a fair share in federal infrastructure funding for the great state of Western Australia.
I want to turn now to the marriage law postal survey for a moment, if you don't mind. For the entire period that I've been in this parliament, the issue of marriage equality kept popping back up and it was never resolved. It became increasingly divisive in the community and there was clearly a very strong push to resolve this issue and to get it dealt with once and for all. Across the Australian community there was, among good and reasonable Australians, a diversity of views which were not easily reconcilable. Good Australians can legitimately have a different perspective on this and we needed to find a way to resolve this issue once and for all for the nation in a way that kept the nation together.
I know there was a big push that this should just be dealt with by a vote in parliament without consulting the Australian people. Let me tell you, I am proud of the role I was able to play to facilitate the effective, professional conduct of the Australian marriage law postal survey through the ABS, which did an outstanding job in helping to deliver it. The result was there for all to see and the result, I believe, helped to achieve that reform in a way that had public support. If the parliament had imposed this on the Australian people there would always have been one side of the community that would have resented that change having been imposed. Having made that decision in the way we did the reform was achieved, but in a way that kept the nation together.
Mr President, this has been an amazing opportunity to serve my country—the country that I chose to make my home. All of us come here with the support of a whole range of different people but, fundamentally, our parties and the people who vote for us at elections. I would like to thank the Western Australian Liberal Party for the trust they put in me, a non-English-speaking-background migrant who had been in the country for fewer than 11 years at the time. I promised that I would give it my best. I hope that you will agree that I have.
When I got here, I was here at the tail end of the Howard government. I just thought: 'Wow, this is just amazing. How did I end up in this party room with John Howard?' He was an absolute giant and somebody who I admired deeply. But then we went through a period in opposition with Brendon Nelson—a fine Australian, a great Australian.
And Malcolm Turnbull, with whom I had a very good personal and working relationship, much has been written. But I think the Prime Minister would agree, my friend, Peter Dutton, would agree, that during the period of his leadership we all worked very hard to help make him the most successful Prime Minister he could possibly be, and a lot of good things were achieved during that period.
Tony Abbott, who nearly won the election for us in 2010, worked so hard, who did win the election in 2013—obviously, a man of strong convictions—and who first put me into the cabinet. I will forever be grateful for the opportunities that he gave me.
Scott Morrison—Scott and I are very close friends. We have worked together exceptionally well. So don't believe all of the stuff that you read in the media; we are very, very good friends. Yes, we engage in debates on policy, and we don't always agree. Newsflash: in politics you look at issues and you have ideas on the best way forward and how to resolve things, with the overlay of your political values, and from time to time you have different perspectives. The debate that you engage in brings you to a better way forward. That is actually the way this system is meant to work. That is the way the Expenditure Review Committee is meant to work and the cabinet is meant to work. The reason cabinet discussions are confidential is so that you can openly and robustly engage in this sort of debate, because that is how you end up with the best possible decisions for your country. It is true that Scott and I, on occasions, have had robust conversations on policy, but we've always been close and trusted friends in this endeavour as we seek to achieve the best outcomes for our nation. Let me say as I leave this place that I feel comfortable in the knowledge that Scott Morrison is leading a strong, united and cohesive team—the strongest, most united and most cohesive team that I've been a part of since I've been in this parliament on our side of politics. As I become citizen Cormann, Prime Minister, I wish you and your government all the very best into the future.
I also want to thank Bridget—Senator McKenzie—as Leader of the Nationals. Again, we are two different parties and from time to time we have different perspectives on different issues, but we've always worked together exceptionally well and with the right overall attitude and commitment to finding solutions. I really thank you very much for the way that you have engaged with me. In fact, I would like to thank all of my Liberal-National colleagues for having supported me through my endeavours.
I would like to thank every senator in this chamber. I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with all of you and I thoroughly respect and value the work you do for our nation. It is your job to go hard for what you believe in. It is your job to engage in the debates that you engage in, and I know that you will continue to do so. Let me just say, Penny, I do hope that we'll stay in touch, even after we've left this place.
As for the crossbench, there's been a great diversity of people on the crossbench over the years, like Steve Fielding, Nick Xenophon, Glenn Lazarus, Senator Lambie, Senator Roberts and Senator Hanson, and, of course, all of our good friends in the Greens over the years: Senator Bob Brown, who was the Greens leader when I got here; Senator Milne; Senator Di Natale; and now, of course, Senator Waters. I have always sought to a way to find common ground even when that initially appeared somewhat impossible. Senator Patrick knows how persistent I can be in trying to find common ground! I really thank all of you—Senator Leyonhjelm, Senator Day. There's been quite a long list of different crossbench perspectives over the years, but it's been such a privilege to work with every single one of you. I will be watching you from a distance and wishing you all the very best.
I have been blessed with the great staff that I've had during my time in office. Senator Slade Brockman was my chief of staff for most of my period in opposition. We've done some great things together—and here he is in the chamber. He's now making his own contribution in his own right. He is doing a magnificent job—in particular, across regional Western Australia. I've had three chiefs of staff while in government. Simon Atkinson, who has gone on to better and higher things, made an outstanding contribution in my office during my first three years as finance minister. He's an exceptional public servant, and I'm sure that he has got much further to go under governments of either persuasion. I wish you very well. Belinda Pola, an outstanding professional, decided to go back to Queensland to have a family. She made a great contribution in my office for quite some time. And Chris Browne, who I think is here somewhere—up the back, yes—has held the fort for some time now. He doesn't know this, but I picked him as a future staffer when I first saw him at a Young Liberals function in 2008. I thought, 'This guy is talented!' In 2015 there was an opportunity and I snatched him, and he has done an excellent job in my office.
It's hard, because I don't want to go through a whole shopping list of names, so I hope that my other very hardworking staff members will forgive me for just limiting it to a few. Natasha Lobo, my EA in Perth, has worked with me—I first hired her in 1997, and she has been with me in my WA Senate office for the entire period. She's just an amazing support and has been amazingly loyal over so many years. Karen Wu, who has worked for seven years as the senior media adviser in government—that's a tough job. Thank you very much for your service over that time. Philippa Campbell came to me after a long period in Peter Costello's office, so she knew a lot of what I needed to know when I started in this job. She has been an amazing support.
I had the privilege of being the minister for the best department in the Commonwealth. Prime Minister, Finance is the best department in the Commonwealth. Simon, Finance is the best department in the Commonwealth. You're close enough to the centre without being right at the centre. You're close enough to be able to help shape the decisions and the directions without being entirely on the frontline and you've got a group of professionals in the department that are just outstanding. As for the secretaries in my department, David Tune was there to settle me in when I arrived—I did know him from the estimates period. He was very generous to me and was, I guess, initially teaching me the ropes as a new minister. The formidable Jane Halton deployed all of her energy and passion to taking me to another level. Rosemary Huxtable is just an amazing, world-class public servant. It has been such a privilege to work with you over the entire period. Rosemary was the deputy secretary of budget in Finance when I arrived, and we did our first few budgets from that position. In more recent years, she has become the secretary of the department. Rosemary, I really value the work that we've been able to do together to help give our nation the best possible foundation and put it on the best possible trajectory for the future.
I would also like to thank the clerks, who, when we were in opposition in particular, were so helpful in boosting my training to give the government of the day at the time the hardest possible time. Because of all of the tricks that I learnt from the clerks when in opposition, I knew how to defend myself against the opposition when we were in government—not always but perhaps a bit better than I otherwise might have—which was fantastic. The chamber attendants here are always unfailingly courteous. This has been just such a great workplace. Everybody just makes it tick in such a nice and friendly and courteous fashion.
I would like to finish by firstly thanking my parents for the opportunity they gave me as a child growing up. I'm not your typical Liberal-background politician. My parents are working class. My mum was a full-time mum. My dad was a factory worker. He got sick; he ended up on a disability pension. They had four kids by the time they were 28. It wasn't plain sailing, but they bent over backwards to give me opportunity, and for that I will forever be grateful.
I would like to finish by saying a very sincere thank you to Hayley. Hayley is an outstanding woman. She's an amazing individual. She's obviously my life's partner and best friend. She's an amazing mother to our beautiful children, Isabelle and Charlotte, but she's an outstanding professional woman with a distinguished career in her own right. She was the President of the Law Society in WA at age 35, and I'm so proud of what Hayley has achieved now working at the bar in Perth and to observe the respect in which she's held by her colleagues and her peers in that profession. Hayley had to build her career throughout that entire period while I was mostly away. During the seven years as finance minister, I was essentially over east every week from the middle of January to the middle of December—every week. We have two kids. Hayley had her own career. I was over here, so she has carried a very substantial burden for me being able to pursue this opportunity to do this job, and I will forever be grateful for that. Thank you very much, Hayley.
So, colleagues, this is my last contribution from this chair in this chamber. There is probably more that I could or should have said, but I think the hour is advancing. I give you this commitment: after today, I won't be back!