ABC TV - Lateline

Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance


Date: Friday, 18 September 2015

Leadership, Canning by-election, China-Australia Free Trade Agreement

EMMA ALBERICI: After one of the most remarkable weeks in Australian political history, Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann is back in his home state of Western Australia where all eyes are keenly focused on this week's by-election. He joins me now from Perth. Senator Cormann, thank you for joining Lateline tonight.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Good evening Emma, good to be here.

EMMA ALBERICI: You hold Canning, the Liberals hold Canning with a 12 per cent margin. Do you expect to win it that convincingly tomorrow?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Over the last four or five weeks Andrew Hastie, our candidate, has worked very hard to earn the trust of the people of Canning. He is an outstanding candidate. He has served Australia with distinction in the armed forces, putting his life on the line to defend our way of life. He has been working very hard over the last few weeks engaging with the people across Canning. I am hopeful that tomorrow they will reward him with their support.

EMMA ALBERICI: As a friend of Tony Abbott's, how difficult has this week been for you and those who've stood beside him on Monday night?

MATHIAS CORMANN: It has been a difficult week. These sorts of things are never easy. Everybody knows the position that I took on Monday. Everybody knows how I voted on Monday. But in Monday night the Liberal party room made a decision and we must move on. We must unite behind the new leader. I strongly and unequivocally now support Malcolm Turnbull as our leader and as our Prime Minister.

EMMA ALBERICI: There is a general view that Tony Abbott didn't transition well from Opposition Leader to Prime Minister, that his combative style turned people off. Is that a fair assessment of what went wrong for him?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I will let the observers and political analysts and the commentators dissect all of the... interrupted

EMMA ALBERICI: You're one of the most closely, you're one of those observing most closely?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I'm a player on the field. All of us who are players on the field, our job is to look ahead, to do the best we can, provide good Government for Australia, to work together as a team and to do everything we can to win the next election. So I'm going to let others dissect the entrails of what happened in the lead up to Monday. I'm going to let others dissect the ins and outs of the Abbott Prime Ministership. I'm looking forward. I'm part of a team that has a job to do. I'm part of a team that has a job to do to put Australia on a stronger foundation for the future. All of us in the Coalition have to do everything we can to win the next Federal election. That is an effort that I will support with every fibre of my body.

EMMA ALBERICI: Tony Abbott delivered a concession speech without mentioning Mr Turnbull at all, let alone wishing him well as Prime Minister. Was that appropriate?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Let's give the man a break. He is a good man. He has provided distinguished service to Australia for a very long time. He has been in public life for a very long time. On Monday night he lost his job, a job that he enjoyed, a job that he invested his everything into. That was a difficult time for him. So I don't think we should judge him too harshly by dissecting every little move and every little word that was or wasn't said.

EMMA ALBERICI: As you've mentioned already, you didn't vote for Malcolm Turnbull on Monday night. Was that out of personal loyalty to Tony Abbott or you did really not fancy Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Malcolm Turnbull knew before Monday night's vote how I would vote. I was very public in my support for Tony Abbott in the lead up to Monday's vote. I explained all of my reasons at the time. This is all ancient history, to be honest though. It is all behind us. On Monday night the party made a decision. I support that decision. I support Malcolm Turnbull. I will do everything I can to help Malcolm Turnbull be the most successful Prime Minister he possibly can be. I will do everything I can to help ensure that we are the best possible Government moving forward.

EMMA ALBERICI: When Prime Minister Turnbull said he would lead a thoroughly liberal Government, did you take that to mean he felt the Government had, until that point, strayed too far to the right?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I think that Malcolm Turnbull will lead a very effective and very good Government moving forward. I think based on everything that Malcolm Turnbull has said this week, he is very well aware that the Liberal party is the custodian of both the classical liberal and conservative traditions. I'm sure that both those traditions will be well reflected in the policy work that we will be doing as a Government moving forward.

EMMA ALBERICI: Will you be upset if he does drag the Government further to the right? 

MATHIAS CORMANN: I’m very confident …interrupted 

EMMA ALBERICI: I mean further to the centre rather?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I'm very confident that Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister will lead a very effective Government focused on doing what is right for Australia, focused on putting Australia on the strongest possible foundation for the future. I look forward to being a part of his team.

EMMA ALBERICI: It does look like Malcolm Turnbull is compromising on his previously core beliefs on things like climate change, marriage equality and water reform, so aren't people going to start questioning what the difference really is between a Turnbull Government and an Abbott one?

MATHIAS CORMANN: He put himself forward for the consideration of the party on Monday night. The party decided to back him. As such, he now has our full support to be our Prime Minister. He has made it very clear that it is going to be his intention to do everything he can to take Australia in the best possible direction… interrupted

EMMA ALBERICI: Can I draw you back to the question? Sorry to interrupt you, but at some point Mr Turnbull is going to have to dump some of Tony Abbott's policies and reassert some new ones that distinguish him from the previous regime.

MATHIAS CORMANN: We took a policy agenda to the last election. The policies are not set by one individual. Yes, the leader plays a very important role but policy is actually set by the party as a whole. There is a process through the Cabinet and through the party room and all of these issues, as issues, opportunities and challenges arise will be addressed as the party sees fit. I'm very confident that that will work very well moving forward.

EMMA ALBERICI: So Mr Turnbull has said that Tony Abbott wasn't able to provide successful economic leadership. What does successful economic leadership look like and how do you expect it to be different with Malcolm Turnbull?

MATHIAS CORMANN: What I heard Malcolm Turnbull say was that we needed to explain the economic challenges we face as a nation better. That we need to explain the opportunities we have better. That we need to explain the decisions we are making and the reasons why we are making those decisions and why we are pursuing a particular reform agenda better. I agree that we can always do better. I look forward to doing my bit to help our Government do a better job moving forward.

EMMA ALBERICI: There is talk of Martin Parkinson, the ex-Treasury secretary, coming back as chief of staff to the Prime Minister. You worked closely with him. Would you welcome his return?

MATHIAS CORMANN: I'm not aware of that. This is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister. Who the Prime Minister appoints as his chief of staff is well and truly a matter for the Prime Minister.

EMMA ALBERICI: So a commercial radio host this morning, as you'd be aware, asked Scott Morrison to swear on a Bible about what he knew and when. What did you think about that?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Scott Morrison has addressed all of these issues this morning. I really haven't got anything to add. I'm not going to provide commentary on commentary. I have already indicated to you that I'm looking forward to the job at hand and that is really for us to provide good Government and to do everything we can to win the next election.

EMMA ALBERICI: With commodity prices collapsing, the investment phase of our resources boom winding down, the Chinese economy slowing, where will those jobs of the future Malcolm Turnbull spoke about come from?

MATHIAS CORMANN: This is exactly the challenge we are facing as an economy right now. We are a trading nation. We are export oriented. When you have dramatic falls in the price that we can get globally for key commodities, that is going to have an impact on our economy. Clearly what we need to do moving forward is to ensure that we are the most competitive we can be, that we bring down the cost of doing business, that we pursue innovation as an engine for new opportunities to supply products into a global market at competitive prices. I'm very confident that in the weeks and months ahead we will be able to put more flesh on all of that bone that is currently out there.

EMMA ALBERICI: Polling by The West Australian newspaper, which will be published tomorrow, is said to reveal that the people of Canning are concerned. 50 per cent of them are concerned about losing jobs as a result of the China Free Trade Agreement. Has the Government win too impatient to get a deal done that they've sacrificed Australian jobs in the process?

MATHIAS CORMANN: No. The Australia-China Free Trade Agreement is good news for jobs and for growth. It will deliver more Australian jobs. It is true that clearly the union movement, the CFMEU, the Labor party, have run an irresponsible, though politically somewhat effective, political campaign against what is an agreement that is manifestly in our national interest. It will help our exporting businesses increase sales into China. It will help our exporting businesses get more products and more services into the Chinese market, which is unambiguously good news for Australian businesses, which will help them employ more Australians. All of the things that have been said by the CFMEU and Labor that somehow it facilitates Chinese investors sending hordes of Chinese workers into Australia are false. The usual safeguards in our immigration system continue to apply. The safeguards put in place by Labor when they were in government continue to apply. Nothing in the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement changes any of that.

EMMA ALBERICI: Finally, Mathias Cormann, do you expect to be Finance Minister on Monday or will you be punished for the fact that you helped depose Malcolm Turnbull in 2009?

MATHIAS CORMANN: Malcolm Turnbull knows my history. He knows what I've done in the Cabinet over the last two years. It is entirely a matter for him. It is his judgment as to where he believes I can best contribute to the overall team effort to our success. I will accept whatever his decision is. 

EMMA ALBERICI: Senator Cormann, thank you very much for joining us.

MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.