Mathias Cormann tests negative for Covid as campaign for OECD job puts Coalition's climate record in spotlight

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The British opposition has reportedly written to Boris Johnson demanding the UK oppose former finance minister’s nomination

mathias cormann
Mathias Cormann has returned to Australia and is spending his time in quarantine calling OECD ambassadors and ministers as part of his campaign to run the global body. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Mathias Cormann has returned to Australia and is spending his time in quarantine calling OECD ambassadors and ministers as part of his campaign to run the global body. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 03.03 EST

The former finance minister Mathias Cormann tested negative to coronavirus seven times while crisscrossing Europe and travelling to South America as part of his government-backed campaign to lead the OECD.

Guardian Australia has confirmed that Cormann has also tested negative to Covid-19 early into his stint of self-quarantine in Western Australia, where he remains after returning to the country on Thursday.

After Scott Morrison said his former minister needed to use a Royal Australian Air Force plane as a precaution to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus, Cormann is now using his time in self-quarantine to make a series of further calls to OECD ambassadors and ministers as part of his continuing campaign to run the global body.

The revelations of his coronavirus precautions come as Cormann faces fresh pressure over the government’s climate record, with the British opposition reportedly writing to Boris Johnson to demand the United Kingdom oppose the Australian’s nomination.

The Nine newspapers report that Labour’s trade spokesperson, Emily Thornberry, has used the letter to argue that Cormann’s record on climate change is “one of denial, inaction and deeply retrograde steps on issues like emissions trading, carbon pricing, and fossil fuel investment”.

Cormann said in response to the story on Sunday: “I am absolutely committed to ambitious and effective action on climate change. The challenge in Australia, and globally, is not about whether to address climate change, but how this is done in an effective and least [costly] way.”

Cormann promised that if he was named as the OECD secretary general, he would “use every lever available through the organisation to help lead and drive ambitious and effective action on climate change as a top priority”.

Morrison was not granted a speaking slot at this weekend’s climate ambition summit – hosted by Britain, France and the UN – after concerns Australia was not going to announce a significant upgrade to its international commitments.

Instead, Morrison told a Pacific leaders’ summit he was “very confident” Australia would not need to draw on Kyoto protocol carryover credits to meet its 2030 Paris agreement targets.

Labor’s climate spokesperson, Mark Butler, said on Sunday Morrison’s inability to get a speaking slot was “not surprising given the rest of the world has made it clear for years now that it views Australia as a laggard on climate change under this Liberal/National government”.

Cormann is campaigning to assume the role of secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Guardian Australia has previously reported he was accompanied on his travels by a medical officer.

Under WA government rules, Cormann was recognised as having engaged in government travel and was therefore not required to go into hotel quarantine upon his return to the state on Thursday.

While this is not classed as an “exception”, it did require applying for a so-called G2G pass from WA police. Cormann is now on his own in a WA police-approved residence, from which he is making campaign-related calls.

Guardian Australia has been told Cormann took numerous coronavirus tests while overseas, all of which returned negative results, and also tested negative two days into his self-quarantine, with another test due on the 11th day.

Cormann’s month of travel around Europe included meetings with government representatives in Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Austria, the Slovak Republic, Hungary and France.

Despite being abroad, he also held virtual meetings with ministers from Iceland, Norway, Finland, Estonia and Italy.

Cormann had a formal job interview-style meeting with OECD ambassadors in Paris on 3 December and then met with leaders or deputy leaders of major international bodies such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Labour Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Cormann’s use of an RAAF Falcon aircraft – at a likely cost of about $4,300 per flying hour – has attracted domestic political criticism at a time when ordinary Australians have embraced video conferencing.

But the government has defended the campaign on the basis the OECD plays an important role in shaping global rules and will help coordinate the economic recovery from the pandemic.

“The reason we need him to do that in the air force jet is because Covid is running rampant in Europe,” Morrison said last month.

After his time in Europe, Cormann travelled to Chile and Colombia – the latter of which has been recording about 9,000 new Covid-19 cases each day – for meetings with ministers and with the Colombian vice-president before returning to Australia.

Cormann is hoping to replace Ángel Gurría as secretary general when the Mexican steps down next year, but is up against nine other candidates, most of them from Europe.

The other candidates include Sweden’s nominee, Cecilia Malmström, who has strong links across the OECD’s European member states, given she served for four years as EU commissioner for home affairs before taking the role of EU commissioner for trade from 2014 until last year.

The OECD says the chair of its selection committee will soon begin carrying out confidential consultations with individual members, “in order to narrow the field of candidates and ultimately identify the candidate around whom consensus can be built for appointment”.

While Cormann has sought to burnish his economic credentials as Australia’s longest serving finance minister, some analysts say the government’s climate record could present a key obstacle to his prospects, given the OECD is dominated by European countries and it has long been arguing for stronger global action on the issue.

While leaving room in his OECD promotional material for different countries and regions to differ in their precise policy responses, Cormann has been promoting a vision where – under his leadership – “we can come together to share ideas about our collective green recovery effort on our journey towards a low-emissions future”.

A final decision is due by March.