Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Ahead of the vote this morning, a few of the senior Liberals aren’t breaking cover. But the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is one who is. He joins me now. Senator Cormann welcome to the program.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good to be here.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The party room meeting is in less than two hours now. Some of your colleagues are telling us that it is going to be very tight. Whatever happens now, Tony Abbott is fatally wounded isn’t he?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I disagree. Tony Abbott has been written off before. Back in 2007 people told him that his political career was over. Tony Abbott has a track record of coming back better and stronger and that is what he will do this time.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Nonetheless, part of the pitch for Government, for Tony Abbott as Opposition leader was a return to adult Government and an end of the chaos of the Labor years. It is going to be very difficult, if not impossible now for you to ever claim high political ground back again?
MATHIAS CORMANN: What made us successful in the lead up to the last election and for most of the period in Government was that we were a strong and united force. We have got to get back to this after today and start focussing again on the job at hand, which is to build a stronger, more prosperous economy and create more jobs and ensure that Australia is safe and secure.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But some of the malcontents or those unhappy in the backbench say that has never been the case. Teresa Gambaro yesterday summed it up for some in her statement when she said: “we cannot govern ourselves in an internal climate of fear and intimidation and that’s the unacceptable situation we have endured for the past five years.”
MATHIAS CORMANN: I don’t agree with that characterisation...interrupted
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But clearly some do feel like that.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Sure. I don't believe that that is the majority view in the party room.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Whether it is a majority view or not, if the vote comes even close this morning, it is proof that there is serious discontent in the ranks at the moment and has been for some time.
MATHIAS CORMANN: After the vote today there is no doubt that the challenge for the Prime Minister and the challenge for the Government is to bring everybody back together and get us back into being the strong and united force that we have been in the past. Prime Minister Abbott has done this before. He won the leadership in 2009 by one vote and he ended up forging a very successful team, which took us successfully to the 2013 election. He nearly won the election less than a year after he became leader by just one vote. So I'm very confident that he can do it again.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Even last week the Prime Minister said that he was going to change. He was going to become more consultative. He was going to consult widely. We have this decision about the submarines in South Australia yesterday, which it seems Christopher Pyne, the senior South Australian didn’t even know about.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Let me just pause you here. There is actually no change in policy. The Prime Minister has been talking to his South Australian colleagues as he has been talking to colleagues right across Australia in recent days, as you would have expected him to do. The truth is that in relation to the submarine contract, no decision had been made. We were always going to go through a proper process to ensure we get value for money. The objective was and continues to be to achieve the best possible defence outcomes for Australia, the best possible outcomes in our national security and we were always going ...interrupted
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: This decision at the last minute was clearly designed to win over some of those waving South Australian votes, that seems obvious.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Prime Minister in recent days has been talking with a lot of colleagues to explain the Government's attitude and the Government's approach to a whole range of important issues, this being one of them. We were always going to have a competitive evaluation process and it was always going to be an effort to ensure that with a contract of this size Australia gets value for money.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Okay, what about bringing this party room meeting forward, what was that about? I mean, the Prime Minister, was he worried about giving the backbench another 24 hours to caucus because that is how it is being interpreted by some, as another sign of disrespect for the party room.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is just wrong. Overwhelmingly across the party most people would agree that that was the right decision. Manifestly it was not in the Liberal party’s interest and it wasn’t in Australia’s interest for the Prime Minister to have to go into the Parliament today without this issue having been resolved. Clearly, bringing this meeting forward, resolving this issue before we go into the Parliament today was the right way to go.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: It’s not just the party room, of course, is it? We have got Newspoll out this morning. It’s very clear that the voters have turned on Tony Abbott, 57-43, that’s pretty significant, isn’t it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Given the week we have had I am surprised that it isn’t worse. I remember well as somebody working in the Howard Government, back in March 2001 when we lost the State election in Western Australia, we had lost the State election in Queensland, the poll was slightly worse and later that year we won the election. I'm very confident that Tony Abbott can turn the situation around in time for the next election in 18 months from now.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But it's not even just about the Prime Minister, really, it is about the policies, isn’t it? It goes all the way back to the Budget. The public doesn’t believe that that first budget was fair and the Senate crossbenchers also don’t believe it and won’t pass the legislation. That's essentially your problem.
MATHIAS CORMANN: We clearly have some work to do and we’ve listened, we’ve learned and we will be adjusting the way we approach things moving forward. The same way as John Howard did in 2001, when after having lost the State election in Western Australia, Queensland and having lost the Ryan by-election, the safe Queensland seat of Ryan, some adjustments were made and then we started to turn the situation around, winning the Aston by-election in July 2001. I am very confident under the Prime Minister’s leadership working closely with Julie Bishop his deputy, the Cabinet and the whole party room, that we will be able to get us back into a winning position.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So will you be adjusting policies? Will you be changing some of those things that the Senate is refusing to pass?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Prime Minister set out a strong and clear direction in his speech to the Press Club last week...interrupted
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: He said he was committed to those things that the Senate doesn’t want to pass, the education reforms in particular.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Prime Minister announced he wouldn’t be proceeding with the Paid Parental Leave scheme that we took to the last election. He made various other announcements about the approach to Government. When it comes to the higher education reforms they are very important reforms. They are reforms designed to ensure that we can have some of the best universities in the world, that our students here in Australia can have access to some of the best higher education in the world...interrupted
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: They are also unpopular and the Senate doesn't like them.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Let’s see. Just before Christmas we were able to secure the support of four crossbench Senators. We need six. So there is clearly still two more crossbench Senators to persuade of the merit of our reforms and let’s see where we end up.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So do you believe there should be changes and where should they be?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Prime Minister announced a whole range of changes in the very strong and clear speech that he gave to the Press Club last week... interrupted
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: I don’t think, with respect, I'm sorry, it doesn’t seem to have convinced the voters because we have got this Newspoll out from this weekend, days after that speech.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I don't think, given the week we've had, I don't think the Newspoll today is an accurate reflection of people’s perception of the Prime Minister’s speech to the Press Club last Monday. I believe that the Prime Minister, the leadership team and the party needs more time to be able to get the messages about the new direction across to people across Australia.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: How much more time? I mean if this situation is still like this in six months time is this leadership crisis going to linger?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not going to put a time line on it. I very strongly support the Prime Minister. The reason I support the Prime Minister and Julie Bishop, they are the team that took us successfully to the last election. I believe that they are the team that will be able to take us successfully to the next election. I believe that they should lead the Government that is accountable for our performance over our first term in Government at the next election and who will be presenting our second term agenda to the Australian people.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Because there is a view among some in the backbench that perhaps this spill motion is too early and the Prime Minister should be given some more time. But they are really only talking months, that is not really a recipe for stable and effective leadership, is it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have some work to do to win back the trust of the Australian people. There is no two ways about that. I believe that we can do it.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Wouldn't Malcolm Turnbull be better at negotiating with the Senate? I mean clearly it hasn’t worked under Tony Abbott and at least Malcolm Turnbull does appear to have kept the lines of communications open with Clive Palmer, for instance?
MATHIAS CORMANN: A number of us have kept the lines of communications open with Clive Palmer.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Not very effectively to this point.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I think some of us have kept the lines of communications open with Clive Palmer quite successfully. We were able to get rid of the mining tax and all of the related unfunded promises that Labor attached to it. We were able to get various policies in relation to our border protection agenda. Scott Morrison was very successful there. Malcolm Turnbull is an outstanding senior Minister in the Abbott Government and he strongly supports the Prime Minister and he will be voting against the spill this morning.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And some say a better negotiator; do you need a better negotiator?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not going to provide a running commentary on all of my colleagues except to say that I support the leadership team in Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop that took us successfully to the last election. I believe that they are best equipped to take us successfully to the next election.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The numbers don't show that, though. At the end of the day Tony Abbott can't win the next election on the numbers you have.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That's your assertion. I completely disagree with you and because I disagree with you that is why I will be supporting Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: It's not really my assertion, it's the polls.
MATHIAS CORMANN: It is your assertion.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Well the polls are showing that's the case.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I've just mentioned to you that back in March 2001 the polls for John Howard were actually slightly worse and seven months later he won the election.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Okay, Mathias Cormann, thanks for joining us.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.