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Australia's former finance minister named OECD chief

Eve SZEFTEL
·3-min read
The 51-year-old politician was chosen "by a slim majority" during a meeting of ambassadors of the 37-nation Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development based in Paris.

Australian former finance minister Mathias Cormann was elected Friday as the new head of the influential Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, sources close to the OECD told AFP, in a choice likely to dismay environmental groups.

The 50-year-old Belgian-born politician was chosen "by a slim majority" during a meeting of ambassadors of the 37-nation OECD, which acts as a think-tank and club of mostly rich, democratic countries.

Cormann served as Australia's finance minister for seven years until late 2020, a record for the country, having been first named to the job by right-wing climate change sceptic Tony Abbott in 2013.

He has criss-crossed Europe in the last two months, where most of the OECD's members are located, promoting his candidacy and promising an agenda of "inclusive and sustainable economic growth."

Earlier this month, more than two dozen global civil society leaders wrote to the OECD's selection chair to draw attention to Cormann's record on climate change in government.

The joint letter said this "should preclude him from being selected as the OECD's new Secretary-General", while Greenpeace International said Cormann had a "terrible record" when it came to the climate.

But he has defended his efforts and promised to work on the issue at the OECD, telling AFP earlier this month that "action on climate change to be effective, requires an ambitious, globally coordinated approach".

Cormann, who emigrated from German-speaking Belgium to Australia in his mid-20s, emerged as a surprise frontrunner and beat out fellow top contender, Sweden's Cecilia Malmstrom, a former EU trade commissioner.

- Past statements -

Green groups have sought to highlight many of Cormann's past statements such as when he called Australia's emission trading scheme "economic self-harm which does nothing to help global emissions".

When students in Australia participated in a global strike for climate action, Cormann suggested they "stick to school", and he publicly praised a speech by former US president Donald Trump labelling climate activists "prophets of doom".

Cormann, a powerbroker in the ruling Liberal party in Australia, will take over from long-standing OECD chief Angel Gurria who is stepping down after 15 years in the position.

His appointment must be ratified by the OECD's decision-making council on Tuesday. The new secretary general takes his post in June.

The OECD publishes influential analysis on government policies and compiles databases to compare country performances.

It also serves as a forum to discuss policy, latterly working on a new global plan to tax multinational tech groups.

Under Gurria, it has also become a vocal backer of policies to tackle the climate emergency and has been critical of the Australian government's actions in the past.

"The single most urgent, emergent, immediate risk is to combat Covid-19, and its health, economic and social consequences," the Mexican told the Guardian in February.

"But the single most important intergenerational responsibility is to protect the planet ... We are on a collision course with nature and we have to change course for future generations."

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