In work and life, Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann has always played the long game.
In the literal sense, the Western Australia based Federal Minister for Finance, Special Minister of State and Leader of the Government in the Senate, has come further than most to get to where he sits today.
From a working class family in the small, German-speaking Belgian town of Eupen to a life spent between Perth and Canberra, the physical long game is clear.
But Senator Cormann’s overarching personal philosophy – viewing life as a marathon and not a sprint – recurred on more levels than one during the humorous retelling of his life to date at AIM WA’s Inspirational Leader Series breakfast late last year.
“In business or in life generally, if you want to sprint and get somewhere faster I find you get there more slowly,” he said. “I find if you pace yourself and adopt a frame of mind where you view it as a marathon, you actually end up progressing faster – that’s my personal experience.”
On the surface, the marathon theory belies the seemingly swift emergence of the Senator, whose measured performance has helped quickly build a public profile since his Australian political arrival in 2007 and subsequent promotion to the Finance Minister role in 2013.
In truth, as is so often the case, the ascent was far from smooth. It was full of the challenges that come with relocating halfway across the world on a whim. Unusual for an Australian politician, the Senator didn’t even speak English for the first two decades of his life.
It wasn’t until his 23rd year, when he spent a year on exchange at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, that the now 47-year-old picked up the language.
It was his fourth language, having spoken German at home, completed high school in French and the majority of his law degree in Flemish before practicing in a Belgian firm.
Addressing the ILS breakfast, Senator Cormann recalled a formative conversation in Flemish with the owner of the law firm, which resonates to this day.
“His son was the boss at the time and all of us who started had to go see him,” he said. “I’ll never forget what he told me, which was ‘being right means nothing. The only thing that matters is whether you can convince enough relevant others that you are right – it’s worse to be right and not be able to persuade enough others that you are right, than to be wrong’."
But when Senator Cormann migrated to Perth following a holiday in 1994 – a move made based on the ‘excitement and opportunity’ he saw here – he discovered his qualifications and language skills counted for little, and his sphere of influence was smaller than ever.
“I was advised by the Legal Practice Board at the time that having essentially already been at university for six years I’d have to go back to study for another year-and-a half full-time,” he said.
The need to make money won out and the Senator got to work persuading employers to give him a chance. “I wrote letters everywhere,” he said. “I wrote 350 to 400 letters asking for an opportunity and essentially suggesting that I could add value to businesses or organisations, wherever they were.
“Invariably the responses came back saying ‘all very interesting, but no thanks’. Clearly the approach I had used was not working.” Soon Senator Cormann found himself working the yards at Presbyterian Ladies College. “I ended up working as a gardener, which was very bad for my ego at the time,” he said with a laugh. “I was a qualified lawyer who had worked for a law firm and here I was pulling weeds at Presbyterian Ladies College.”
The Senator said his time at PLC brought about reflection and the realisation of another set of skills which could be transferred to the Australian context without regulatory barriers – at least after January 26, 2000, when he forfeited his Belgian citizenship to become an Australian citizen – a fact with which he is jovially transparent given the controversy which has engulfed the nation’s 45th parliament.
Like so many growing up in Europe during the 1980s, Senator Cormann’s upbringing was influenced by the fear of a third world war breaking out as a result of the Cold War – the impact of which would come to define his political views down the track. He recalled with a chuckle driving a 1974 Volkswagen Polo 600km from Namur in Belgium to Berlin in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Then 19 years old, Senator Cormann said the contrasting fortunes of East and West Germany between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall showed the incremental impact economic policy could have on a society. It’s an experience he passionately draws on to this day, having referenced the wall’s fall in a speech to the Sydney Institute in August 2017 when cautioning against chasing the socialist ‘politics of envy’ he believes are pushed by Bill Shorten and the Australian Labor Party.
The statement is embedded in his own past as a spectator in Germany in 1989. “For me as a second-year law student having arrived in Germany in the two or three weeks after the wall came down, to think over an extended period of about 40 years you had two sides on two different trajectories, and look at how it turned out,” Senator Cormann told members.
“The thing about economic policy choices is they can be quite incremental – it’s when you look back over an extended period of being on a trajectory that you realise the massive impact it can have.”
Inspired by what he saw, Senator Cormann dabbled in local politics during his early 20s, working for politicians, including the Premier of the German-speaking community in Belgium. Tired of pulling weeds, he decided to leverage this experience in Australia. He joined the Liberal Party in 1996 and between 1997 and 2000 worked as a Chief of Staff to the WA Minister for Family and Children’s Services. He was a senior adviser to Premier Richard Court from 2000, before deciding to make the jump to the federal realm. True to form, it didn’t prove a simple transition to make. Senator Cormann knocked on the door of then Federal Senator Chris Ellison in 2001 and offered to work for free, before jumping to a paid position when a vacancy opened up.
“That was all very good and it meant my first serious paid job in Australia was working for a Liberal Senator for Western Australia,” Senator Cormann said.
“Later I moved on to pursue other careers, including in the private sector working for HBF, but maintained my involvement in the Liberal Party organisation. At some point around 2006 or 2007 a vacancy came up and I looked around and thought ‘I think I could be as good as anyone in this particular opportunity’ – enough people said yes.”
Senator Cormann’s appointment to replace Senator Ian Campbell in 2007 was labelled whirlwind by The Australian, but in keeping with his overarching philosophy it proved more marathon than sprint.
Having served in parliament now for a decade, and as Finance Minister since 2013, the distinctive Senator Cormann has developed a reputation as a negotiator and problem solver – something he said he thrived on.
He has been integral to the government’s financial policy over a difficult economic period and has become one of the most recognisable figures in Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet Senator Cormann said his political philosophy was one of survival – you can’t run the race if you are not in the field.
“Sometimes we avoid making decisions or locking things in because we want to hang on and wait for a 100 per cent outcome, rather than say ‘well if we can get 80 or 70 or even 60 per cent now then we survive, we live to fight another day and we get another crack at getting closer to the ultimate destination down the track,” he said.
Senator Cormann acknowledged his ‘robotic’ public perception with a chuckle and said his media persona owed to the same theory of survival.
“When I first went into parliament as a young backbencher, Peter Costello said to me ‘just remember son, when you speak to the media or do an interview you are always two sentences away from political oblivion’,” he said. “These days people say ‘this Cormann fella, he’s such a robot!
He’s so disciplined and never puts a foot wrong’ – it’s because if I say something wrong I’m going to die, politically speaking.” True to the marathon, Senator Cormann is yet to set a foot wrong.
A story of hard work, discipline, persistence and self-belief, there appears to be plenty of distance left to run.