Profile of Mathias Cormann


Ryan Emery reports on how Australia's Belgium-born Finance Minister turned a holiday into a lifetime.

(Transcript from World News Radio)


He's the German-sounding, French and Flemish-speaking politician that we know little about.


Mathias Cormann came to Western Australia 20 years ago and he's spent seven of those as an Australian politician.


Ryan Emery reports how Australia's Finance Minister turned a holiday into a lifetime.


(Click on audio tab above to listen to this item)


Mathias Cormann casts his mind back 20 years and a smile broadens across his face as he remembers arriving in Western Australia for the first time.


"We were picked up at the airport and drove past here Riverside Drive down past the Swan River, off to the Blue Duck in Cottesloe, coffee in the afternoon and I did sort of look out over the ocean and thought: 'wow, this is pretty bloody good' I probably shouldn't have said that.

"Reporter: no, you're Australian now, I think you're allowed to say that.

"Look, those first four or five weeks was an amazing experience and Australia is such a great country."


So the Belgium-born, German, French and Flemish speaking law student returned to his homeland to finish his law articles before returning to live permanently in Australia in the mid 90s.


But a Belgian law degree wouldn't an Australian lawyer make so he had to find something else.


He entered politics, joining the Liberal Party, and helped with the campaign for then Senator Chris Ellison in 1996.


"The reception was great. I think people were quite confused about where I was from because my accent, apparently, is somewhat different. It's not quite German, even though German is the language I grew up speaking, it's quite mixed because I'm from Belgium. I went to school in French and university in Dutch. It's a bit of a mish mash accent wise, I think. Some people seem to think that I'm a South African because there's lots of South Africans in Perth and others totally disagree."


He became firm friends with now WA Education Minister Peter Collier who met him on the campaign trail for former Senator Chris Ellison.


Peter Collier says despite spending most of his life in Europe, Mathias Cormann connected with Australian politics.


"His capacity to dissect issues is phenomenal. That's why I enjoy Mathias' company so much. He can sit down and he can literally dissect issues and look at them in a very very reasoned manner and come up with a value judgement, which is extraordinary."


The pair has grown close over many barbecues - despite some culinary differences Peter Collier says.


"Nomally the barbecues are at my place and he provides the sausages. He's got some place that he finds over where he lives, where he gets these sausages, which, quite frankly, are hideous, but apparently they're German and he insists on bringing them along and they take about three hours to cook and they're really not worth the effort."


Mathias Cormann's highest role in Western Australian state politics was as senior adviser to then Premier Richard Court.


He says his time in state politics in the late nineties was an introduction to Western Australia that few people get to experience.


"I had a lot of opportunity to travel the state. Go to places like Kununurra to Esperance, from Geraldton to Bunbury to meet people across a broad range of areas and also across a broad range of locations across Western Australia. Look the sheer size, the size of the opportunity, the investments, and the production levels in the Pilbara, all of that was quite mind blowing for somebody who came here out of Belgium, which was obviously much more settled and in those days with a challenged economy."


Mathias Cormann was born in the German-speaking town of Eupen near the Belgium-German border.


He was one of only about one hundred thousand people in Belgium who spoke German, but when he went to school he had to learn French.


And when he went to university he had to learn Flemish.


He says he never had time to learn English and it wasn't until he was 23 during on a year-long university exchange in Norwich, England that he learnt.


"I never actually learnt English grammar or I never did the formal English language education. I went to study law. And when I went there I didn't know how to speak English at all. I spoke French. And in the early days I tried to speak French with an English accent. I tried to make myself understood as best I could. I mean the short answer is the best way to learn a language is by living within the linguistic community whose language you want to adopt."


Even if you have to overcome some light-hearted teasing from good friends like Peter Collier.


"Mathias is actually very big on the champagne actually, more than the beer. I mean we've always got to have the first quality European champagne. I'm not a man for champagne myself so it's not enamoured to me. The only issue we've really had, culturally, is his accent. I keep on telling him he's got to overcome his "v" for "we". We say "we" in Australia, not "v", but he still hasn't been accustomed to that at this stage, but it's only been 18 years so another couple of years I might get him out of that."


The married father of a little girl, Isabelle, entered the senate in 2007 and became the Minister for Finance when the coalition took government last year.


Peter Collier says it was a loss to state politics.


"But no he's had his heart set on federal politics. He desperately wanted to be in the senate, the upper house, the house of review, much the same as me in the house of review in Western Australia. He had his mind set on that and he made a very very, dare I say it, determined effort to get there and he's achieved that. So I respect his decision. I don't agree with it, I would rather have seen him in the legislative council, but I respect his decision and he's doing an outstanding job in his current role."


Senator Cormann, who also learnt to be a pilot in Western Australia, says his migrant story has been a positive one and the only barbs he's faced have been from the opposition


"People don't worry where you come from. If you are prepared to work hard, have a go, there's really no limit what you can achieve in your chosen field of endeavour whatever that might be. And I really think, dare I say it, us, as people who migrated to Australia to give it our best and to contribute."



Source World News Australia

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