Former Australian finance minister Mathias Cormann was elected Friday as the new head of the influential Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, sources told AFP, in a choice that dismayed environmental campaigners.

The 50-year-old Belgian-born politician was chosen "by a slim majority" during a meeting of ambassadors to the OECD, which acts as a think-tank and club of democratic countries, the sources close to the organisation said.

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 premier and climate change sceptic Tony Abbott in 2013.

He has criss-crossed Europe by plane 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".

In a statement on Friday, Cormann said leading the organisation would be a "privilege and an honour."

"It provides a great platform for international cooperation and best practice policy development, from the foundation of a shared commitment to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, market-based economic principles and a rules-based international order," he said.

This month, more than two dozen global civil society leaders took the unusual step of writing to the OECD's selection chair to criticise Cormann's record on climate change while in government.

Greenpeace on Friday expressed "deep dismay and anger" at the choice for one of the world's major multinational institutions, while the head of E3G campaign group Nick Mabey said the appointment sent a "dangerous signal".

Cormann has defended his political career and promised to work to cut emissions at the OECD, telling AFP earlier this month that "action on climate change, to be effective, requires an ambitious, globally coordinated approach".

The conservative church-goer, who moved from the German-speaking part of Belgium to Australia in his mid-20s, emerged as a surprise frontrunner to beat fellow contender Cecilia Malmstrom, a Swedish former EU trade commissioner.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it "the most senior appointment of an Australian candidate to an international body for decades."

He said in a statement that Cormann's experience in Europe and Australia "will ensure he makes an outstanding contribution as leader of the OECD."

The 50-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.
The 50-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. AFP / MARK GRAHAM

Green groups have sought to highlight Cormann's sceptical statements on climate policy in the past, such as when he called Australia's emission-trading scheme "economic self-harm which does nothing to help global emissions".

When students in Australia took part in a global strike for climate action, Cormann suggested they "stick to school".

During his first stint as finance minister under Abbott, the government made killing off a carbon tax a political priority, while the last election in 2019 saw the ruling Liberal party repeatedly attack its Labor rival over its pro-climate policies.

"He helped lead the charge on dismantling an effective legislative and regulatory framework for bringing down emissions and reshaped Australia into a global laggard and anchor on climate action," Julie-Anne Richards from Climate Action Network Australia said in a statement.

Cormann will take over from longstanding OECD chief Angel Gurria, who is stepping down at the end of May after 15 years at the helm.

The new appointment must still be ratified by the OECD's decision-making council on Tuesday.

The Paris-based OECD, which has 37 member nations, publishes influential analysis on government policies and compiles databases to compare country performances.

It also serves as a forum to discuss policy, and has recently spearheaded talks on a new global plan to tax multinational tech groups that has become a tense issue between European countries and the United States.

That issue is likely to be one of the first Cormann will have to confront as leading nations aim to reach a deal by July.

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

Cormann grew up in the small town of Raeren in eastern Belgium and speaks in strong German-accented English, which has seen him likened to "Terminator" star Arnold Schwarzenegger in his adopted homeland.

While campaigning for the OECD job, he emphasised his multilingual background and experience in Asia. As well as German and English, he speaks French and Flemish.

According to the sources who spoke to AFP, he was strongly backed by the United States, and his Asian experience was decisive.