Cormann’s ‘extraordinary’ day in Kyiv, and what he thinks of Zelensky
Save articles for later
Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.
Mathias Cormann is a long way from home, arriving at Restaurant Bon in Paris’ affluent 16th arrondissement.
While his new base – the headquarters of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development – is just a few minutes’ stroll from Rue de la Pompe where we meet, home is very much where the heart is.
Mathias Cormann hadn’t expected to be swapping Paris for Perth, but is enjoying his job at the OECD.Credit: Nathan Laine
“Perth is home,” Cormann says fondly. “I’ve spent just about my entire working life in Australia, working in and out of Perth. I love Australia, I love the people and the lifestyle in Perth, no question it’s where I feel most at home.”
The Belgian-born Australian speaks four languages including French. He only began learning English at the age of 22, when he went to study at Britain’s University of East Anglia in Norwich under the Erasmus student exchange program.
While swapping Paris for Perth may have seemed a natural, if not inevitable, fit for his post-politics life, the former senator and finance minister insists it was never on his agenda.
“My next plan was to go into the private sector, Perth-based, perhaps with an international flavour to my activities but no, the OECD wasn’t my idea originally, definitely not.”
In fact, Cormann declined the idea when former prime minister Scott Morrison first proposed putting him forward to lead the Paris-based group of rich nations, which plays a key role in shaping the international economic agenda.
But, after what he describes as a period of “intense reflection”, he changed his mind and gave the hotly contested selection process for secretary-general his best shot. He emerged the victor in a tight race over the European Union’s former trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom.
“I love the job,” he says. “It’s a tough job, but it’s a great job.
“It’s incredibly satisfying when you have the opportunity to help bring countries together on a common position when at the start of the process there might be a diversity of opinions.”
We pause to order. Restaurant Bon is a French-Asian fusion and while the eye-catching decor, designed by the French industrialist designer Philippe Starck (who fitted out Steve Jobs’ superyacht), suggests a trendy opulence, the weekday lunch menu – Cormann’s go-to when dining here – is surprisingly affordable, coming in at a mere €34.50 ($55.95) for a two-course menu with a drink.
Mathias Cormann at lunch. Credit: Nathan Laine
Ordering in French, he opts for the tempura prawns and cod in tom yum sauce; I choose the lacquered eggplant with miso sauce and royal sea bream in banana leaf.
When I ask if we’re having a glass of wine, he reminds me that the set menu comes with a drink. “We’re in France,” he says with a laugh.
The water is sparkling, and his wine is Chablis; mine an all-too-drinkable pinot noir.
Lacquered eggplant with miso sauce at Restaurant Bon.Credit: Nathan Laine
When Cormann arrived in Paris, the pandemic had wreaked havoc on economies worldwide, depressing economic growth and setting in motion the sky-high inflation currently crippling economies.
When he was seven months into the job, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine.
“Within hours of the invasion, we issued a very clear and emphatic statement condemning Russia’s war of aggression in the strongest possible terms as a breach of international law and also expressing our solidarity and support for Ukraine,” he says. “In the 60-plus-year history of the OECD, that was the first time that it made such a political statement.”
Russia was technically still a candidate for accession to the OECD, although the process had been on ice since Putin illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Now it has been stopped altogether.
“We’ve suspended Russia’s participation in all of the OECD policy bodies. We had an office in Moscow, we closed that office and the OECD now has an office in Kyiv.”
Under Cormann, the organisation joined a rush of governments establishing or re-opening their embassies in Ukraine in a show of solidarity. The Australian government is an outlier in failing to revive its diplomatic post, citing security concerns.
Cormann says he was struck by how normal Kyiv felt when he arrived there at 4am on February 28, after a 10-hour train journey from the Polish border.
“I did feel safe travelling around Kyiv,” he says.
“Being in Kyiv for the day was quite extraordinary. It was much more normal than I had expected, pretty much like any other capital city – with heavy incoming commuter traffic in the morning, lots of people out and about shopping, or waiting for the bus, walking the streets with their kids.”
Tempura prawns.Credit: Nathan Laine
It was only the intense security around government buildings that acknowledged the war.
The OECD has been working with Ukraine since its independence in 1991, but the relationship has stepped up since the war, working to support the education of millions of student refugees who’ve fled their homeland and, more recently, to set the foundations for the country’s eventual reconstruction.
Ukraine wants to join the OECD because membership would unlock better access to global capital markets, vital for its post-war rebuild. But membership requires the country to align itself with strict international standards and Cormann says there is a “lot of homework to do” before formal accession talks can start. Before the war, Ukraine scored 32 out of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the country’s path. Ukraine is doing the work to sign the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention within the next two years.
“Ukraine is not just open to reform but is, in fact, highly motivated, very focused and energised about rebuilding better, rebuilding a stronger, more modern country,” he says.
“I honestly admire the way Ukraine is able to keep the operations of government running.”
He witnessed this firsthand when he travelled to Irpin, about 25 kilometres from Kyiv’s CBD. Irpin’s bridge became an early image of the war when hundreds of refugees were photographed huddling together under the broken cement.
“The destroyed bridge is still there, a monument to what happened, but right next to it is 95 per cent of a new bridge, and that is within less than a year,” Cormann says.
Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge over the Irpin River on the outskirts of Kyiv on March 5, 2022.Credit: AP
“With all the tragedy and all of the horror associated with war, you’ve got to be inspired by their sheer resilience and determination to just keep going to get to the other side.”
Cormann first met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the man most identified with Ukrainian resistance, at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, before the war began. He encountered a different man in Kyiv.
“He’s carrying an enormous burden of responsibility. You can see the weight of that responsibility on his shoulders,” Cormann says.
“In 16 months between meetings, he has visibly aged. He’s doing such an incredible job leading his country and leading globally the fight for freedom and democracy against Russian aggression.”
A journey from Canberra to Kyiv might not have been on Cormann’s radar when I first met him in 2009. I was a reporter in the press gallery, and he was a junior senator from WA navigating the mechanics of opposition politics. But he was very clearly on the rise.
Cod in Tom Yum sauce.Credit: Nathan Laine
His ascent accelerated when he played a key role in steering the Coalition away from supporting former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, helping topple then Liberal opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate, who was replaced by the conservative Tony Abbott.
Abbott reclaimed power for the Coalition in 2013 on the back of a promise to repeal the carbon pricing mechanism.
That 2009 battle triggered Australia’s climate wars, contributing to a decade of political instability during which the major parties churned through five prime ministers.
And although the Liberals’ last prime minister, Scott Morrison, finally succeeded in signing his partyroom up to net zero, it was too late. In the public’s mind, the Coalition had lost all credibility on climate action, contributing to its loss to Labor last year, by which time Cormann had relocated to Paris.
He says he does not miss the partisanship of those times. “Don’t get me wrong … I look back with great fondness at my time in parliament and with the knowledge in myself that I gave it my best.”
Royal sea bream in banana leaf.Credit: Nathan Laine
But not all missions were accomplished. He regrets losing the fight to lower Australia’s corporate tax rate from 30 per cent. “That’s one thing where I feel if, maybe, I had done a better job, Australia might be in an internationally more competitive position.”
Given the brutality of the politics of that era – Cormann played a role in the thwarting of Turnbull’s political ambitions a second time, administering the coup de grace to his prime ministership – it’s something of a surprise that his regret is a policy one, rather than personal.
Cormann stands by all his actions during those leadership battles but concedes, with sadness, that he probably lost friends along the way.
“It was an awful time but in the end, sometimes you’ve got to make judgments in the circumstances … even though you haven’t brought them about, you’ve got to resolve them, and I tried to resolve difficult and unpleasant circumstances in the best interests of the party and the country and I stand by the judgments I made.”
The climate wars threatened to damage Cormann’s run for the OECD job. Critics painted him as a climate change denier though it’s a charge he strongly rejects. “I have never been a climate denier,” he says. “I mean accusing me of a being a climate denier because I dare to argue that we should do it [address climate change] in a way that is effective?”
What he opposed was not action but piecemeal responses he says, warning at the time that Australia acting in lieu of a global approach would simply offshore emissions while harming Australia’s trade-dependent economy.
He points to his work at the OECD as evidence of the consistency of his position. His team has begun work to better inform co-ordinated global responses, measuring the costs of the variety of emissions reductions policies against efficacy. This he argues, will give governments considering carbon reduction methods hard data to use when making those decisions.
The receipt at Restaurant Bon.Credit: Latika Bourke
“I’m now in a position where I can help facilitate what I have argued for more than 15 years was needed, I’m doing now what I have felt was needed for a very long time,” he says.
Cormann’s bid for the OECD enjoyed bipartisan support, something that his government denied to Rudd when he wanted Australia’s endorsement to run for the UN secretary-general’s job.
But Cormann doesn’t believe bids by ex-politicians for international jobs should trigger automatic bipartisan support. “I don’t think you can make a blanket rule, I think governments and oppositions will make that decision on a case-by-case basis.”
One of Cormann’s lasting friends from his time in Australian politics is Joe Hockey, with whom he worked closely when Hockey was treasurer before being appointed to Washington as Australia’s ambassador.
It was a friendship devastatingly illustrated when the pair were filmed in 2014 smoking cigars outside Treasury ahead of delivering a budget full of spending cuts. Does he still smoke them?
“Last time I looked, it was not illegal to smoke the occasional cigar,” he says drily.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.
Most Viewed in World
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article