Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance and the Public Service
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s go live to one of those individuals mentioned there, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann. That was the challenge put to you. What’s your response?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That was a difficult week. I certainly did not engineer any coup. I think that people who remember the history as it played out at that time would recall that Malcolm decided to call a leadership ballot on the Tuesday, which took his whole leadership team, except Julie Bishop, by surprise, including me. I voted for Malcolm on that Tuesday as did Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash for that matter. But it was clear given the result that day, that his position had become irretrievable and that it was in the interest of the country, the Government and the Liberal party for the issue of the leadership of the Liberal party to be resolved with more certainty before we left that week as going into the break without the issue resolved would have created unbelievable instability, chaos and dysfunction, which was not in the country’s, the Government’s or the Liberal party’s best interests.
LAURA JAYES: He is not accusing you of being an engineer but he is accusing you of blowing up the Government. Do you take some responsibility for that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: From the moment that Malcolm became Prime Minister, for three years, I worked extremely hard to help Malcolm be successful as Prime Minister, to help his Government be the best Government we could be. We did achieve a lot of very good things. I would have preferred if that continued, but events developed that meant that we had to make some decisions. I wish that on the Tuesday what happened didn’t happen, but ultimately in the days that followed we couldn’t ignore reality. We had to deal with the situation as it presented itself and we had to make judgements. At all times, for myself, and I know that that is the case for my colleagues, we all tried to make judgements based on what was right, do it the right way and for the right reasons.
KIERAN GILBERT: So do you believe that, you have given your explanation as to your behaviour during that week and that is fine, we can put that to one side. But do you think that the former Prime Minister is right, that some of your other colleagues need to explain more fully the reasons why they did what they did?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I will let all of my colleagues talk for themselves. But you are right, I explained myself before I made the decisions I made. Firstly directly in a one on one meeting with Malcolm and subsequently publicly and I explained myself after the event. So I certainly believe that I was publicly accountable for my actions in what was a very difficult week. I have to say, I had a very good personal relationship, a very good working relationship with Malcolm. I never wanted the events to unfold the way they did. It would have been much more comfortable for me personally if I did not have to deal with matters that week as they emerged. There is no question about that. But the truth is, that in the circumstances as they developed, I was in a position where I had to make some judgements and I did.
LAURA JAYES: He also said that there was internal polling, privy, that senior Ministers had seen, that had the Government ahead 52-48 in the weeks leading up to this coup. Is that true, did you see this polling?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I have not seen any such polling. But I would say, there is no question in my mind, the Government had worked very well as a team and that we had got ourselves back into a more competitive position than we had been. But, that was before the ten days of, essentially that period. We clearly had some policy issues in relation in particular to the National Energy Guarantee to work through. My intention and my expectation was that that would happen, as we had worked through difficult policy issues in the past. But in the end that is not the way things played out and sadly on that Tuesday, when the surprise leadership ballot was called the way it was, it crystallised a level of division in the Liberal party party room that needed to be resolved and ultimately it was.
LAURA JAYES: So just on the polling though Senator, you did not see this polling, you weren’t privy to the polling? It is unusual for the Leader of the Government in the Senate not to be, isn’t it?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Well I have to say, I have not seen that polling. That is all I can say to you.
LAURA JAYES: Before or after?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Not before or after.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it time for Malcolm Turnbull to move on now, to put it to one, to put it to bed and leave you to govern?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not going to give Malcolm public advice. I feel for him. This clearly has been a difficult period for him, I get that. Believe it or not I actually enjoyed working with Malcolm. We were a good team. I am sorry about the way all of this has played out, but in the end, this is more important and bigger than any of us as individuals. In the end, we have got a job to do for the Australian people. That is what we are focussed on.
KIERAN GILBERT: Does it frustrate you though that he does not necessarily believe what you are saying in terms of your motivations there?
MATHIAS CORMANN: All I can do is answer questions openly and candidly when they are put to me. Everybody else has got to form their own views.
LAURA JAYES: Just final question on this, you say that you enjoy working with Malcolm Turnbull. Have you spoken to him since the events that unfolded? Do you have any kind of relationship with him at the moment?
MATHIAS CORMANN: No we haven’t spoken. We have had some WhatsApp exchanges, but no we have not spoken since then.
LAURA JAYES: Okay.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s look at another story and it looks like the free trade agreement with Indonesia might be a bit more wobbly than we might have otherwise thought. There were reports this week that it would be signed at the ASEAN summit next week, Mathias Cormann, but Laura Jayes, her sources this morning suggesting that is not as certain as it would appear at the moment. That Retno Marsudi, the Foreign Minister in Indonesia has been arguing that Australia needs to give a guarantee that we will not move our embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The background for this is, of course, Jokowi, the President’s running mate is a hard line Muslim cleric, they have got to placate some of their domestic constituencies at the moment and if we want the FTA, apparently they want that commitment. What is your reaction to that story?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We have a very good relationship with Indonesia. I spent most of the last week in Indonesia meeting with senior Ministers in Indonesia. Let me say we continue to work constructively with Indonesia. The Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is of course an important agreement for both sides. It will help deliver beneficial outcomes both for people in Indonesia and here in Australia and we continue to work to secure a successful conclusion. We are keen for that to happen by the end of the year.
LAURA JAYES: Well how keen are you Senator, because the Indonesian leadership is asking for a guarantee. Is that something that Australia can offer?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is something that you are saying. That is not something that was put to me last week. We will continue to work with Indonesia in relation to the issues related to the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement … interrupted
LAURA JAYES: Is it an unreasonable demand?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I will let you run the commentary. We will continue to work with Indonesia on finalising a trade agreement, which is in the best interest of both Indonesia and Australia. We have approached this all the way through from the point of view of wanted to secure a win-win outcome. That is what we will continue to do.
LAURA JAYES: But you wouldn’t like to see this free trade agreement fall over because of that reason would you?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We are committed to securing a free trade agreement that is beneficial both for Indonesia and for Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: Our understanding is that the economic and trade Ministers, your counterparts have been very constructive when they come to this issue and they want it done. But the other issues, that we have been talking about in terms of the embassy have come from the Foreign Minister. From your part have your counterparts been constructive on this front and positive that they can sign this deal?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Again, I am not going to go into private conversations, but I did spend nearly a week in Jakarta last week. I had very good meetings with senior Ministers in Indonesia. We continue to work, all of us, lead in terms of the trade agreement by the Trade Minister, but we all continue to engage with our Indonesian counterparts to help secure a good outcome for both Indonesia and for Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: Finance Minister, we appreciate your time as always.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.