Sydney, Australia: The new head of the OECD is an Australian former minister born in Belgium known as a formidable backstage operator but also shadowed by a controversial record on climate change.
Australia’s longest-serving finance minister, 50-year-old Mathias Cormann was appointed head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in March and took over on Tuesday.
He is the first person from the Asia-Pacific region to take the helm of the Paris-based, 38-nation organization, and takes the role after one of the worst global recessions on record due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But it is his climate record that grabbed headlines ahead of his appointment, with environmentalists slamming Cormann as the wrong choice for a job which will require putting the fight against global warming at the forefront of economic planning.
More than two dozen environmental groups said Cormann shouldn’t have been considered for the role, citing former statements they said opposed climate change.
But Cormann has defended his climate record, saying that “action on climate change to be effective, requires an ambitious, globally coordinated approach”.
According to the OECD, his priorities include promoting “global leadership on ambitious and effective action on climate change to achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050.”
As well as seeking to strengthen the global economy post-pandemic, Cormann also inherits from his Mexican predecessor Angel Gurria the mammoth task of finalising multilateral approach to digital taxation in a dispute that divided the US and Europe.
A powerbroker in the ruling center-right Liberal party and a qualified pilot, Cormann quit parliament late last year to seek the top job.
He emerged as a surprise frontrunner and beat out a fellow top contender, Sweden’s Cecilia Malmstrom, a former EU trade commissioner.
Another eight candidates were whittled out of contention.
The OECD works to boost economic growth and world trade, and its 37 member nations account for 60 percent of global economic output.
Cormann said climate change was among the group’s key challenges when he announced his candidacy last year, along with education, skills and “narrowing differences on taxation policy”.
He helped campaign against a carbon pricing system designed to curb emissions in Australia’s carbon-intensive economy, and was a senior member of the government that repealed the scheme in 2014.
Cormann focused his pitch for the role on the perspective he would bring to the OECD after having “shared my life in equal measure between Europe and the Asia-Pacific”.
Born and raised in the eastern German-speaking part of Belgian, Cormann speaks German, French, and Flemish as well as English.
He studied law in Belgium before migrating to Australia in the 1990s and working his way up the ranks of the Liberal party.
Despite spending more than a decade in parliament — and serving as finance minister for a record seven years — he is not well-known to the Australian public.
But he was an influential party operator, and was instrumental in the elevation of Prime Minister Scott Morrison by helping oust the country’s previous leader.
Morrison told the National Press Club in early February he nominated Cormann in part because “cooperation between like-minded liberal democracies… has never been more important than it is today”.
“As the world grapples with the recovery from Covid-19, this grouping… has a fundamental role to play in keeping markets open,” he added.
Cormann’s campaign attracted controversy in Australia when it emerged he was using an air force jet to criss-cross Europe and make his case to other leaders.
Critics slammed the costly exercise as unwarranted when tens of thousands of Australians were stranded overseas because of a government coronavirus policy capping international arrivals.
Australia’s government said the move was necessary because commercial air travel would have put Cormann at risk of contracting Covid-19.