Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
PAUL MURRAY: The political community here particularly in Western Australia is mourning also the passing of Labor Party Senator Peter Walsh. Best known I suppose as the Finance Minister for the reforming Hawke Government between 1984 and 1990, I think it was that Peter held that position. He didn’t really live by anyones’ rules but his own. I mean it was unusual in itself that a wheat and sheep farmer from Doodlakine would become a Labor Party Senator but he did and he was a firebrand one at that. Before the Hawke Government won office, Peter published a newsletter out of his political office, which was quite scurrilous and absolutely devastating for his political rivals. When he was the Finance Minister he was known for his toughness. In fact he was the one who gave Bob Hawke the nickname of “Jellyback” because he didn’t think that as Prime Minister he was being tough enough. He had many, many admirers in politics on both sides. One from the Liberal side of politics is the current Finance Minister, Senator Mathias Cormann, who joins us now, afternoon Mathias.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good afternoon Paul.
PAUL MURRAY: So how did you get to know Peter Walsh?
MATHIAS CORMANN: It is quite an interesting story actually. In my 20s still, as a migrant who had recently arrived in Australia and somebody who was active in Liberal Party politics, I became friends with the guy that was involved in the Kellerberrin branch of the Labor party with Peter Walsh, a guy by the name of Jim Laffer who I was working with at that time.
PAUL MURRAY: Ah, yep.
MATHIAS CORMANN: And essentially one night I was invited over for dinner and this is like 15, 16 years ago now, and we had a fabulous conversation about policy and politics. We agreed on most things I have to say, which was quite interesting at the time. He had very strong and very clear views as you would recall. He had a very clear view on the right way forward and he had a great capacity of being a critic of his own side when he thought it was required.
PAUL MURRAY: I always thought that he was the politician that gave Finance Ministers a good name, because we never really heard much about Finance Ministers until he got hold of the job and really made it go.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is right. He effectively defined the role of a strong and effective Finance Minister. He made it his own. By that time, he was in the role for about six years as you said between 1984 and 1990. That was the longest stint of any Finance Minister in Australia up until that time. A couple of interesting descriptions. I think The Australian described him as the man who made Paul Keating look soft. Some years later in fact after I became the Finance Minister, John Stone who had been the Treasury Secretary and who for a short period was a National Party Senator for Queensland at the time that Peter Walsh was Finance Minister, said to me that it was in fact Peter Walsh who was responsible and to credit for much of the fiscal reforms in those Hawke Government years and more so, in his view, than perhaps Paul Keating was.
PAUL MURRAY: What did you make of Peter’s book Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I’ve got a copy. Peter gave me a copy and after I became the Finance Minister, Gary Gray organised for us to catch up at his home with his family, we had a lovely lovely night...interrupted
PAUL MURRAY: For those who don’t know, Gary Gray, the former national secretary of the ALP and now the Member for Brand is married to one of Peter’s four daughters, to Deborah.
MATHIAS CORMANN: So I walked away with my own copy of Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister and it really reads like a manual of what an effective Finance Minister needs to do in order to keep the Government’s finances on the straight and narrow. It is a fascinating read. In Peter Walsh’s usual style, very direct, very straight, interesting examples that I suspect whichever side of Parliament is in power at any one point in time, there is some dynamics in Government that are essentially the same between those that are focused on controlling expenditure and those that have an interest in spending more money.
PAUL MURRAY: Just recall to us what he did in the 1986 Budget because that is a great example.
MATHIAS CORMANN: In 1986, not dissimilar to I guess the challenge that we are facing right now as a nation, we were exposed to a significant fall in the terms of trade, with implications on the revenue side of the Budget and in just one Budget, Peter Walsh lead the charge in finding and giving effect to about $6 billion in savings. That was a massive and very challenging undertaking at that time and obviously an amazing effort. So he really went very hard as a crusader in Cabinet against wasteful government spending and in making sure that Government expenditure was sustainable over the medium to long term. I guess as a farmer, as you say quite an interesting concept to have a farmer from regional WA end up as a Labor Finance Minister in a Federal Government, but he had a very much a common sense approach to things that served him well.
PAUL MURRAY: And he loved the rough and tumble, the robust nature of political discourse as well. He was very good at it.
MATHIAS CORMANN: You were never left wondering what he thought.
PAUL MURRAY: Great to hear from you. Thanks Mathias.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.
PAUL MURRAY: Mathias Cormann, Liberal Party Senator of course and following in the footsteps of the great Peter Walsh.