In the end, it wasn’t the family flights paid for by Helloworld Travel, just after his department gave the company a $21 million contract. Nor was it the image of him smoking a cigar with the then-treasurer, his eyes closed in ecstasy or satisfaction, just before they delivered one of the country’s most punitive budgets.
The moment that has really followed Mathias Cormann into his role as secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development happened while he was still in opposition. It was 2011 and he was trying to frame the calamity of climate change as a cost-of-living issue.
“The government’s push to put a price on carbon on the basis that it would help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions,” he told the senate, “is a very expensive hoax.”
Those last three words are among the reasons he was an unlikely pick to head the OECD. As the BBC put it, Cormann will lead the body “despite climate record”. Other headlines have been more direct: “A climate change vandal goes to Paris.”
Cormann said it twice, just to be clear. “In effect, the government is proposing to make overseas polluters more competitive than even the most environmentally efficient equivalent business in Australia. This is why it is a hoax.”
The campaign to put Cormann into his new role was extraordinary. We don’t know what was spent or what was promised. We know, from reporting in the Nine newspapers, that the prime minister made 55 phone calls to world leaders on Cormann’s behalf. He used meetings intended to co-ordinate the global response to the coronavirus as a forum to push his former Finance minister. A team of more than eight people was set up inside the Department of Foreign Affairs to work on strategy. A military jet was commandeered.
Reportedly, the main hesitation from member countries was Cormann’s record on climate change. In February, Cormann wrote a LinkedIn post committing to the net zero target his government ignored. He wrote that the OECD would “help identify best practice, market based, technology and policy solutions which maximise emissions reduction outcomes in a way that preserves energy affordability and is economically responsible”.
Yet he continues to defend Australia’s action on climate change as significant. “There’s a lot of things we do well in Australia,” he says, “but we do them in the Australian way.” The same speciousness has been there since his first speech to parliament: climate change was real, he said, but the rest of the world needed to do something about it before Australia could. He called this a “sensible and considered approach”.
Since winning the secretary-general race, Cormann has warned against international carbon tariffs. The global response he has always said was necessary, and which he can now affect, will not have a global mechanism. He says, “We do not need additional trade tensions on top of the existing challenges we face at present in the global economy.”
We are now at the last point in history where the catastrophe of climate change could be arrested, before global heating becomes irreversible. An Australian is in one of the key roles for policy co-ordination on this. His record here is one of sustained inaction. His latest comments are hedged and tricky. Still, Cormann’s skill in politics has been to back the right mood. He has changed allegiances when he needed to. Malcolm Turnbull described him as “weak and treacherous”. Hopefully these traits allow member countries to push for the action he never led here.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 20, 2021 as "Cormann evolution".
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