Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
BEN FORDHAM: Wednesday afternoon, you’re with Ben Fordham on 2GB, 131 873 is the number to call. Of course the world is reeling today following another terror attack. This time in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. Don’t you just hate waking up in the morning and realising that it has happened again? There has been an outpouring of support for the nation that hosts the European Parliament and is home to people from all other the world. Islamic State has claimed responsibility. It has left more than 30 people dead. Two bombs in Brussels airport. It was eight o’clock in the morning. And they were followed by a third bombing at one of the city’s metro stations, right near the European Union headquarters. Our Finance Minister here in Australia is from Belgium. Senator Mathias Cormann, he still has family in Belgium, also many friends in the country’s capital, Brussels and he is on the line this afternoon. Senator Mathias Cormann, the Finance Minister of Australia, good afternoon to you sir.
MATHIAS CORMANN:Good afternoon Ben.
BEN FORDHAM: My condolences first of all. How is your family?
MATHIAS CORMANN: My family is okay. My family lives about 120 kilometres east of Brussels, near the Belgium-German border. But as you say, I do have a lot of friends in Brussels. These are absolutely awful and terrible events. My heart goes out to all of the people in Belgium who have to work through these terrible events of the last twenty-four hours.
BEN FORDHAM: You used to live just a few hundred metres, I understand from the subway station which was attacked in Brussels.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Yes, that is right. The subway station, Maelbeek is right next to the European Commission building in the heart of Brussels. It is just a kilometre down from the Australian Embassy incidentally. I lived just a few hundred metres away. I walked across there, I used that subway station, I left from Zaventem Airport in Brussels, which is where the first two bombs went off. It is very confronting. One because I do have a lot of friends that live and work in Brussels. But I personally, 22, 23 years ago, I used to walk around there every single day. It is really quite terrible.
BEN FORDHAM: Let me ask you about Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels. It is known as a terrorist haven. Up to forty of the jihadists who have left for Syria from Brussels came from this district alone. What is it about Molenbeek?
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is a serious challenge not just for Belgium, but for Europe more generally. Australia is somewhat protected by our geographic location and by the distance from some of these terrible events in the Middle East. But for European countries with a large migrant population from these North African countries and the like there is a more significant challenge. That is something that these countries have had to work through for some time. No doubt the events of the last twenty-four hours will cause governments and people in these countries to reflect on what else needs to be done to prevent these things from happening in the future.
BEN FORDHAM: Do you agree that front and centre of that challenge is border control?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not going to here and now, sitting in Australia looking at Brussels give advice to authorities over there. I am very confident that governments and authorities in Europe will reflect on what has been happening and on how best to respond. In the end every national government has as one of its core functions the safety and security of its people. I am confident that governments in Europe will assess and review and make judgements on how best to proceed from here, given what’s been happening.
BEN FORDHAM: Sure. You said this isn’t just about Belgium, it is about Europe as well and it is about the world. But it is unique is it not, I mean, we hear that Belgium has the highest per capita when it comes to recruited fighters of any nation in Europe that is taking off to fight with Islamic State.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Brussels is, for many years has been and is the capital of Europe. That is where all of the European institutions, all of the key European institutions are based, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Council. It is where a lot of migrant communities from across Europe and from across Northern Africa concentrate. The issues that have come with that in recent times are well publicised. I suspect that authorities over there will think very carefully about how to deal with some of these issues in order to ensure that these sorts of tragic events don’t happen again in the future.
BEN FORDHAM: Can you clear something up for me, I don’t expect you to be an expert on all of these things, but I’m just intrigued by it and a lot of my listeners would be as well, I read a statistic today that as far as the Muslim population in the Belgian population, that they make up about 6 per cent of the Belgian population, but that figure is 25 per cent in Brussels. That seems to be very high, I’m wondering if you know anything about that, whether that statistic sounds right to you?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I’m not aware of this specific statistic. But inevitably, with migrant populations and Belgium is no different, there is a concentration around the largest cities. Brussels is the biggest city in Belgium, it is the capital of Belgium, the capital of Europe, and so you find that in some areas of Brussels there is a particularly large concentration of relevant migrant populations and that is not unusual. My parents live in the regional parts of Belgium and you have got a much lower concentration of migrant populations in those parts.
BEN FORDHAM: I’ll leave that issue just there for a moment, I’ll ask you about something else if I can. The long awaited review of taxpayer funded entitlements for politicians has been released. The review started after the scandal involving Bronwyn Bishop’s use of a chartered helicopter. The Government has accepted 36 recommendations of the review and you have been central to all of this. It calls for a new system of work expenses for Parliamentarians. Can you just explain in layman’s terms so that the rest of us understand what new rules mean?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There are as you say 36 recommendations, so it is very hard in one sentence to talk you through all of that... interrupted
BEN FORDHAM: Helicopters cannot be chartered to cover short distances any more, correct?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is exactly right, but again, Australia is a very large continent and we do have some very remote areas. The key principle is that Members of Parliament who do have a very important job to do, representing the public, advocating on public interest issues and the like, they should be adequately resourced to do their job, but we should treat taxpayers’ money with respect and pursue value for money. That is really the theme through the report that has been put to Government, which the Government has accepted, the pursuit of value for money across all of the uses of work expenses, or access to work expenses in order to facilitate Members of Parliament doing their job.
BEN FORDHAM: You’re also going to have a more explicit definition of what makes up Parliamentary business and I like this. I remember saying at the time during the Bronwyn Bishop thing, we’ve got to stop calling them entitlements and start calling them what they are, expenses. You’re going to be redefining that as well.
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is exactly right. That is what they are. Members of Parliament do need to be accessible to the public. They do need to be accessible to relevant stakeholder groups to ensure that the judgements and the decisions that are made by policymakers are properly informed and do in the end take the country forward in the best possible way. In that context, there are some expenses that do need to get incurred, but these expenses should be as high as necessary, but as low as possible.
BEN FORDHAM: I’m glad to know your family and friends are ok but we send our love to everyone else in your homeland, thanks so much for your time this afternoon.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Thank you very much Ben.