Reflections on Mathias Cormann’s resignation

Perhaps the most interesting, though less discussed, aspect of Mathias Cormann’s resignation is what it shows us about the professionalization of politics – Politik als Beruf, as Weber put it.

Political work has dominated Cormann’s adult life.  At 21, in between undergraduate and graduate study, Cormann was elected to his local council (in Belgium), representing a conservative political party, and subsequently worked in several political offices.  At 26, he migrated to Australia, and very soon found a position on a senator’s office, and for the next seven years, worked in a number of ministerial offices, and secured a seat on the Liberal Party Council, becoming one of the vice-presidents three years later.

He then took a managerial position in HBF for four years, but when John Howard foolishly decided to sack Ian Campbell, one of his better ministers, in order to take potshots at Kevin Rudd, as senior vice-president of the party, Cormann was able to organise the numbers to be parachuted into the Senate at the age of 36.  He worked diligently as a backbencher and became a shadow minister for several junior portfolios, and when the Coalition regained power, he was given the Finance ministry, and has retained it under all three prime ministers.

Now, at 49, he has decided to retire from politics, citing the demands of the job, spend more time with the family, etc.  This is a familiar song, and perhaps political representation is particularly stressful for Western Australians, though one might think it less so for those with access to the pointy end of the plane and the RAAF VIP service, and both Kim Beazelys seemed to manage.  Certainly, working away from the home base has its own stresses, and with the growth in two-career families and fly in – fly out jobs, it has become much more common in the Australian workforce.

But while recognising the arguments about the tension between the demands of the job and participation in family life (which are not unique to MPs), one can still wonder why a man for whom politics has been the dominant focus for most of his life would want to leave it after only seven years in office, in which he had achieved such a high reputation.  Two factors suggest themselves.

One is that the next few years will not be a good time to be Finance Minister.  As Paddy Manning has noted, Deloitte’s have predicted that unemployment will remain high and real wages will fall all the way to the next election and beyond.   As the business gurus put it, a key skill is to quit when you’re ahead – and to know when it’s time to jump.

The other is that from the 19th of June last year, Cormann became eligible to choose to retire and take his parliamentary superannuation, which a rough calculation suggests will not be much short of $200,000 a year, indexed, independent of stock market movements, and tax free. Of course, unlike Tony Abbott, he had to contribute to it, but depending on his longevity, he is likely to receive somewhere between $5 – 10 million: not a bad return on his thirteen years’ contributions.

So he is now poised to market himself as an eminence grise: successful finance minister, understanding both Westminster and European modes of governing, speaking three European languages – which might have some market appeal among those having to deal with the uncertainties of the new economic order in Europe and its largest offshore island.  Even if he really does want to stay in Perth, he can see plenty of examples among his former colleagues of parlaying previous political experience into a profitable corporate niche.  In a way, this has become part of the political career: the comfortable after-life.  The Japanese call it amakudari (‘the descent from heaven’).  Cormann is not the first to realise that while ministers are well compensated while in the job and almost as well on leaving it, political life can be even more profitable (and less stressful) after leaving office.

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H.K. Colebatch is a political scientist who established the graduate program in social science and policy at UNSW. But he has not published any poetry, nor has he been awarded the Prime Minister's prize for Political History.

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