- New Deputy PM Michael McCormack spent 29 years in media before entering parliament.
- He is a strong defender of the Australian Taxation Office and its tax collection practices.
- As infrastructure minister, he believes in creating “good debt” to fund projects such as the A$9.1 billion Melbourne-to-Brisbane inland railway.
By Adam Creighton.
Not many Australians realise a journalist runs the country when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is on leave or abroad. Michael McCormack, the country’s new deputy prime minister and leader of the National Party, got himself elected to federal parliament in 2010. Before that, he worked in media for 29 years, 21 of which as a journalist and editor.
“I went from school to the Wagga Wagga daily, the Daily Advertiser, and I was editor by the age of 27, the youngest of a daily newspaper in Australasia at the time,” he says.
His ultimate elevation came in February, when a sex scandal claimed Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce. McCormack took over leadership of the Nationals – and the deputy PM’s job that comes with it.
The former small business minister is of classic National party stock, passionate about regional development and, in particular, the prospect of a younger generation of farmers.
“When people think of farming they think of RM Williams, flanno shirts with sleeves cut out, dirty, grimy faces etc,” he says. “That was my dad.” But he expects things to change in the next decade. “Farmers’ average age is around mid-60s now, but with the rising number of young farmers, especially women, going to uni, and realising there’s a real, technology-driven future in agriculture, it’s about to be pushed down to 38 within 10 years.”
McCormack is a strong defender of the Australian Taxation Office, which in April was accused of sending small businesses broke through overzealous collection practices. “I think they’re doing a good job … It’s not in the ATO’s interest for business to fail because when they succeed they pay tax. You’ll always get outlying stories. With ATO commissioner Chris Jordan, I felt as though “his contract was extended out to 2024 for a good reason.”
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Indeed, the Nationals leader sees the partial shift of ATO staff to Albury in the 1970s as a successful example of decentralisation which should be extended. His predecessor, Barnaby Joyce, shifted the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale in 2016, along with around 350 staff.
“We’ve taken some public servants kicking and screaming into places like Armidale, Wagga Wagga, Toowoomba and Moore,” he recalls. “It might cause problems at first but you try extricating those 400 ATO public servants out of Albury, they would object violently. So many people who take the tree change think: ‘why didn’t I do this years ago?’”.
With McCormack a big Elvis fan, perhaps Canberra public servants would do well to check out the city of Parkes online: “A model hub, an industrial centre and agribusiness centre probably second to none in Australia … set to explode in wealth and value and prominence,” he says. It’s also home to an annual Elvis festival which attracts 25,000 visitors. Asked to name his favourite Elvis song, McCormack jokes: “I could tell you Suspicious Minds because I know every word of the song, but that’s probably not going to augur well.”
Infrastructure and beyond
A few weeks before the May budget, in his first media outing as acting prime minister, McCormack faced criticism from his own colleagues for framing Treasurer Scott Morrison as a fiscal “Santa Claus”. Refusing to apologise, the Nationals leader has been stressing the benefits of the government’s planned record A$75 billion five-year infrastructure spend.
“There’s good debt and there’s bad debt. Record spending on infrastructure: that’s good debt,” he adds, highlighting the Coalition’s A$9 billion-plus 1700km inland railway from Melbourne to Brisbane, which is due to be completed by 2025. On becoming leader Mr McCormack also became infrastructure and transport minister.
While the railway stops are yet to be bedded down pending discussions with the three state governments, the massive 1700 km Melbourne-to-Brisbane inland rail project could well be the biggest infrastructure legacy of the Coalition government. “January 15 saw the first 600 tonnes of steel dropped off at Peak Hill in the central west region of NSW,” says McCormack. “The project will be transformational for farmers and small business.”
Unlike many public infrastructure investments, this railway, which will deliver freight to port within 24 hours, has the backing of the independent Infrastructure Australia. The assessment body estimates the railway will lift GDP by A$16 billion over the next 50 years and reduce emissions by 750,000 tonnes. Freight flows between Brisbane and Melbourne are expected to double by 2050.
There’s good debt and there’s bad debt. Record spending on infrastructure: that’s good debt
Among the government’s other big-ticket expenditures, McCormack was a supporter of the National Broadband Network – “with GPS on tractors farmers can now sit on the phone and do business with traders anywhere in the world and sell at the highest possible price ... We hear a lot of clamour and noise from those who are unhappy they haven’t got the rollout or that there’ve been some bumps along the way. But we don’t hear from those people who have gained access to the world they never thought possible,” he says.
And he also supports the Labor-initiated National Disability Insurance Scheme. “If a country can’t look after its most vulnerable, that’s a pretty poor reflection,” he adds. “I’ve already seen examples whereby people want to take advantage of the NDIS, which bothers me, though.”
McCormack seems unperturbed by the risk of a trade war in the wake of the US’s emerging spat with China. “We’re helped by our geographical location, and that we’ve brokered those free trade agreements with other Asian countries,” he says. “Cream will always rise to the top. We have the best, cleanest, most environmentally and ethically sound agriculture, and countries will always have demand for that,” he adds.
He singles out the government’s initial company tax cut (reducing the rate to 27.5% for companies with turnover up to A$25 million) and the A$20,000 instant investment write-off in last year’s budget as standout Coalition policies that have helped regional Australia.
“Particularly in the smaller centres, among mum-and-dad operators, it really hit home how important this was,” he says. “They thought ‘that’s good because a little bit of extra cash might help buy capital equipment or employ that young person who needs a job’. It really resonated there.”
Should the government win the next election, due before May 2019, McCormack will have more time to focus on growing the regions, his number one goal.
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Adam Creighton is the economics correspondent for The Australian newspaper, based in Sydney.
Photography: Dominic Lorrimer