Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well as mentioned we are going to be speaking to Senator Mathias Cormann. Last night the Canning by-election saw the Liberal party retain the seat. Mathias Cormann, according to the Liberal candidate, Andrew Hastie was the first person in the WA division to get in touch with him and encourage him to run. He joins us now, thanks for your company.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good morning. Good to be here.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Obviously you are happy with the result in Canning. Are you over the moon about the result? It’s a birthday present for you today, Mathias Cormann after what was a pretty tough week.
MATHIAS CORMANN: It was a very good result for the Liberal party. It was a very good result for Andrew Hastie. He has worked very hard over the last five or six weeks to earn the trust of the people of Canning to represent them in the Federal Parliament. He had some big shoes to fill with the sad passing of Don Randall, who was an outstanding grass roots local Member of Parliament. Last night he was successful. The people of Canning rewarded him with their trust. That was great for all of us to see.
PAUL KELLY: Minister, do you think that the Liberal party was always heading for victory in Canning and do you think they would have won if Tony Abbott was still Prime Minister?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I’m going to let that sort of analysis be conducted by the political analysts and the observers. The truth is we are never going to know what the result would have been if we had not changed leaders on Monday night. The reality is that we did change leader. This is a great victory for the Liberal party under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull.
PAUL KELLY: Were you confident during the course of the campaign then? During the course of the campaign when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister most of the time, were you then expecting this sort of result?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We were not taking anything for granted. But all the way through, Andrew Hastie was running a very good campaign. The Liberal party in Western Australia was running a very good and effective campaign focussed on the choice for the people of Canning, who they wanted to see as their representative in the Federal Parliament, who they wanted as their voice in the Federal Government. All the way through we were very confident that we had an outstanding in Andrew Hastie. All the way through we were very confident that we were doing what we needed to do to give ourselves the best possible chance for victory. Last night, we achieved a great result. The people of Canning put their trust in Andrew Hastie to represent them in Canberra. We are very pleased.
PAUL KELLY: Well I think you’ve just answered the question haven’t you. You’ve said all the way through the campaign you were confident. So therefore I conclude from that that your view is that the Liberals would have won this if Tony Abbott had been Prime Minister.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Paul, you are verballing me here. What I said is that all the way through ... interrupted
PAUL KELLY: No, I’m not verballing you at all.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Yes you are. I will say it again for you. All the way through the campaign we were very confident that we had an outstanding candidate. All the way through the campaign we were focused on the choice for the people of Canning who they would want to be their representative in Canberra. We were always confident that Andrew Hastie was the best choice for them, to represent them in Canberra. Having said all of this, in relation to the matter you are very interested in, nobody will ever know what the result would have been if we had not changed leader on Monday night, because the reality is that we did change leader. The result yesterday was a great win for the Liberal party under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: The published polls Senator, suggested it was looking like being 52-48 in favour of Andrew Hastie. It ended up being considerably better than that. Is it your view that it might be able to be akin to the 2001 by-election in the seat of Aston, where the swing wasn’t as large as it was this time around, but similarly I suppose the circumstances were the passing of a popular local Member and the swing that ultimately has been registered, does seem to be less than what was expected in both of those examples.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Last night was a great result for the Liberal party and for Andrew Hastie. Andrew Hastie and the Liberal party in Western Australian worked very hard over the last five to six weeks to put our case to the people of Canning. The people of Canning have embraced Andrew Hastie. We are very pleased. Beyond that I will leave all of the commentary and the dissecting of what every move and every aspect of the result means and how it has developed over the weeks, I will leave that to people like yourselves.
PAUL KELLY: Ah now, you have been, you are a senior Minister in the Government, you’ve been a supporter of Tony Abbott. What’s your assessment of the capacity of the party now to unite behind Malcolm Turnbull as the new Prime Minister?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The party will unite. Everybody knows how I voted on Monday night. I voted for Tony Abbott. Malcolm Turnbull knew that. The party has made a decision to support Malcolm Turnbull as our leader and to support Malcolm Turnbull as our Prime Minister. I support that decision. I support Malcolm Turnbull as our leader and as our Prime Minister. I will do everything I can to help him be the most successful, the best possible Prime Minister he can be. I am very confident that Malcolm Turnbull will do everything he needs to do to ensure that the party is strong and united moving forward. That we provide good and effective Government and that we are in the best possible position to win the next election as a team.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: You say that the party will unite behind Malcolm Turnbull. But during the week after the result, I spoke to Senator Zed Seselja, your Senate colleague. Also a supporter at the time before the ballot of Tony Abbott. He said that a lot comes down to the reshuffle. That it is important in this reshuffle that Malcolm Turnbull isn’t seen to be playing favourites and that he respects the realities of diversity on that front bench. Do you agree with Senator Zed Seselja on that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I actually watched that interview Peter. I also heard that Senator Zed Seselja say that he was very confident that Malcolm Turnbull would be doing exactly that. These are the sorts of issues that I’m sure the Prime Minister is currently considering. These are entirely judgements for him to make. I am very confident, as Senator Zed Seselja was when he spoke to you earlier this week, that the Prime Minister is very conscious of the fact that the Liberal party is the custodian of both the classical liberal and the conservative traditions. That he will take that into account as he makes judgements on the team moving forward.
PAUL KELLY: Now one of the principle reasons that Malcolm Turnbull gave for the challenge related to the economic narrative. He felt that the economic message had just not got out. Now you are a senior economic Minister, so I would like to ask you about this. Do you think that Turnbull is correct in terms of this critique and the Government is not being as successful as it should have been in getting out the economic message?
MATHIAS CORMANN: What the Prime Minister said earlier in the week is that he thought we could do better. I agree. We can always do better. He said that we could and should be doing better in explaining the economic challenges we are facing as a nation. He ...interrupted
PAUL KELLY: I want to correct you there Minister. He didn’t just say that. He did not just say that the Government could be doing better. He said that the message was not getting out. It was a very strong and powerful critique. So I want to ask you what’s your response to that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: If you can let me answer your question. I am sure that we will get to the point that you would like me to make. So what I heard the Prime Minister say was that he thought we could and should be doing better in explaining the economic challenges that we are facing as a nation, in focussing on the economic opportunities we have in front of us as a nation, explaining the economic reform agenda and why we are making certain decisions to put Australia on a stronger economic and fiscal foundation for the future. I agree. We can always do better. Certainly from my point of view, in terms of my personal contribution over the past two years, every single day I’ve had a very simple philosophy. Every single day I get up and I do the best I can to help sell our message, to help provide good and effective Government. To help provide the leadership as part of the economic team that is required. Moving forward I will continue to do my best but in whatever capacity the leader sees fit.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Joe Hockey made the point on Monday evening that Malcolm Turnbull never once came and expressed to him the sentiments that he made in those comments when announcing that he was going to challenge for the leadership about concerns that he had in the economic sphere. Had Malcolm Turnbull ever express concerns to you as Finance Minister, even if he didn’t to the Treasurer?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I’m not going to go into the ins and outs and into all of the history leading up to Monday night. On Monday night, the party made a decision to support Malcolm Turnbull as our leader. To support Malcolm Turnbull as our Prime Minister. He has my support ... interrupted
PETER VAN ONSELEN: That’s a fair question. That’s a fair question though Senator. If the Treasurer says he never once spoke to him, asking the Finance Minister for a clear answer on whether he spoke to you is a reasonable request.
MATHIAS CORMANN: These were comments made in the lead up to a ballot on Monday night. The ballot took place. The Liberal party elected Malcolm Turnbull as our leader, as our Prime Minister. I support Malcolm Turnbull as our leader and as our Prime Minister. Over the last two years, I have worked very closely with Malcolm Turnbull. I’ve got a good personal relationship, I’ve got a good working relationship with him. We were joint shareholders of the NBN and Australia Post and we had a range of other projects in Government that we worked on together closely. We had a lot of conversations along the way. But these are private conversations. What I would say, is that moving forward it is very important that all of us in the Coalition, unite behind the new leadership team. It is very important now that all of us focus on the job that we were elected to do. That is to provide good and effective Government for Australia and as Liberals, to do everything we can as a team to win the next election.
PAUL KELLY: Minister, when did you first get an inkling that there was likely to be a challenge on Monday evening?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Again, that goes to the ins and outs of process leading up to Monday night. There has been some talk for some time. In terms of the specifics, I became aware on Monday, as I think many other people became aware on Monday. The important thing is and I just keep going back to that, the important thing is that on Monday night, the Liberal party room made a decision to support Malcolm Turnbull as our leader and as our Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull has my full and unequivocal support as our Prime Minister and as our leader, as the leader of our party, irrespective of what my view may have been in the lead up, going into that ballot.
PAUL KELLY: Obviously economic reform is going to be front and centre, given what Malcolm Turnbull said about the economy. What do you think are the main areas of economic reform that the Government can take to the next election?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Our challenge as a nation right now, we are a trading nation, we are export orientated, export focused and we are exposed in the sense that we are dependent on the price that we can get for our commodities in the world market. These are prices that inevitably and invariably we do not control. When you’ve got prices for our key commodities fall they way they have, when you are confronted with the biggest fall in your terms of trade in about fifty years, that has implications for your economy. All things considered, the fact that the economy continues to grow, despite the challenges that we are facing, when economies in other parts of the world, commodity based economies in other parts of the world are actually in recession is a very good sign. It shows Australia is resilient. It shows that some of the reform effort that we have been pursuing in recent years has been showing results. Moving forward, we have got to continue to focus on doing everything we can to ensure we are as competitive internationally as we can be, improve productivity, reduce the cost of doing business, focus on innovation as an engine for new products and new competitively priced and valuable products that we might be able to supply into the world market. These are all issues that the Cabinet, under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull will turn their mind to in the weeks and months ahead. I’m sure that we will have more to say about this in the lead up to the next election.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And we will continue discussing these economic matters with you Mathias Cormann, but just a quick one if I can on the leadership, just to close the circle I suppose on this one. I assume you agree with me, that it is a pretty big deal to remove a first term Prime Minister. So you need to have a pretty good reason to do so. I realise that you were on a different side of the argument. But what is that good reason for the Government to change Prime Ministers in its first term given that it is such a big deal to do so?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Peter, that is an argument that we had internally and publicly in the lead up to Monday night’s vote. It is an argument that we had as a party earlier in the year, when the initial spill motion was put forward in February. On Monday night the party made a decision. I don’t think there is anything added by me dissecting now the entrails of all of that. I put all of my views and my position on the public record in the lead up to Monday night’s vote. I was entirely open and transparent with the community. I was entirely open and transparent with Malcolm Turnbull in the lead up to Monday night’s vote. But on Monday night, the party made a judgement. I support the judgement that the party has made. I will support the leadership team of Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop moving forward.
PAUL KELLY: I’d like to ask you Minister if you could just take a step back, this has been a very traumatic event. Do you see this event as being precipitated mainly by the leadership failures of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, or do you think there is a deeper problem with the operation of the political system, given what happened to the former Labor government and the difficulties of Governing during this 24 hour if you like, real time media cycle and the pressures which this and the polls put on all governing parties?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Firstly, I don’t agree with how you framed the question as an ‘either or’ proposition. I don’t believe that these are the only two alternative options as to why we find ourselves in the position we are in. So just let me make that very clear right up front. I’m not going to go back into the commentary and analysis of the previous years, I will leave that to the political analysts and the academics, the observers and the commentators. In relation to the second part of your question, I don’t agree that there is a failure of the political system. I think that Australia has got a strong and robust democracy, as we should have. Issues where there are different views about the best way forward are robustly debated across the community as they should be. In the end if a Government proposes a new way forward, if a Government proposes a particular reform, where there are question marks, it is appropriate and important for there to be scrutiny, for there to be questions asked, for there to be challenges of the position that is being put forward. In the end, that helps us get the best possible decision on the right way forward. I think that is the way the system has operated in Australia for eternity, for as long as we have been a federation. I think and I hope that this is the way that we will continue to operate moving forward. There can be a tendency to think that this is the worst that it has ever been and that today we are arguing the issues so much more controversially than in the past. I don’t believe that is true. I believe that if you look at history, if you look at the way issues in Australia have been debated since the times of Billy Hughes when he was trying to introduce conscription. I think you will find that there has always been robust debate. There has always been challenging of positions in relation to issues that were unresolved in terms of the community view.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Just a quick one Mathias Cormann, it has been reported by Samantha Maiden today in the News Corp papers that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is going to look, or is in favour of removing knighthoods. He will follow cabinet process, not something that happened when it was a captain’s pick to introduce them, but he will follow a consultative process and put it before Cabinet. Presumably you will be part of that Cabinet, what is your view a good move by Malcolm Turnbull?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I will participate in the Cabinet process. I won’t do my colleagues the discourtesy of having this argument before it has been properly considered by Cabinet.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright fair enough, good process. Let me ask you this Mathias Cormann before we run out of time, on the economic front. You are one of the senior economic Ministers from the Abbott Government. Presumably you would be interested in retaining that portfolio looking ahead. The challenges will be great. You’ve talked about innovation and technology needing to be embraced. Are there policies to go with that rhetoric that you can see easily at hand, that under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership the Government could look to embrace that perhaps it wasn’t under Tony Abbott’s leadership?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We took a policy agenda to the last election, which we have been implementing over the last two years, which we will continue to implement. Under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership the Cabinet will continue to assess issues, challenges and opportunities that come our way and come up with the best possible response to them. Under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership the Cabinet and the party room and the party as a whole will turn its mind to a second term agenda, a policy agenda that we would take to the next election. All of that will be part of the appropriate processes and considerations in the weeks and months ahead. I will be an active participant in all of that in whatever capacity the Prime Minister sees fit.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Mathias Cormann, Finance Minister, we appreciate you joining us in the early hour of the morning over there in WA, on your birthday no less. Thanks for your time and good luck with today’s reshuffle. Thank you.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Thank you.