Mathias Cormann: The ex-Belgian running Australia this week

Mathias Cormann in 2016 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mathias Cormann will be Australia's acting prime minister for four days

Australian Senator Mathias Cormann spoke little English until 1993 - a year before his first visit to the nation.

Now the Belgium-raised politician will become Australia's acting prime minister this week, stepping in while Malcolm Turnbull conducts a visit to the US.

It is a seemingly rapid rise for the 47-year-old finance minister, whose temporary elevation has been brought about by unusual circumstances.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce cannot take on the acting role because he is on leave amid a politically damaging scandal over his affair with a former staffer.

The next politician in line, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, is also overseas this week on official business.

Instead, Mr Turnbull opted to ask Mr Cormann, the government's leader in the Senate, to assume the role for four days from Wednesday.

Immigrant story

Mr Cormann was born in Eupen, Belgium, and grew up in the nearby town of Raeren as a German language speaker.

He has credited Cold War politics and the fall of the Berlin Wall for sparking his political awakening.

Mr Cormann studied law at university and only began learning English aged 23, during an exchange year at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He later described it as "communicating with people through a dictionary".

In 1994, while in a relationship with an Australian woman, Mr Cormann visited Perth for the first time. He decided to migrate after a return visit, even though the relationship ended.

"The sense I had at the time was that everything was so big. There was so much opportunity," he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014.

"You could literally feel the likelihood that this place was going to develop quite incredibly strongly. At the time I thought: 'Wow, this is great. I want to be part of it.'"

What is the role of acting prime minister?

The person fulfils the prime minister's domestic duties when the leader is travelling overseas, on holidays or suffering illness.

According to 1901 legislation, acting appointees can exercise all duties of the role they are performing.

But some observers have questioned the importance of the role in the modern era, when the prime minister is rarely unreachable.

After settling in Perth, Mr Cormann worked as a gardener before landing a job within the conservative Liberal party.

His rise through the ranks saw him first enter federal parliament as a senator in 2007, when he used his maiden speech to joke about having a "slight accent".

Mr Cormann obtained a coveted Cabinet position as finance minister in 2013, and last year he became the government's leader in the Senate.

In January, the senator received Germany's highest civil honour - the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit - for advancing German-Australian relations.

Local political commentators have attributed much of Mr Cormann's success to consistency and hard work.

He has been described by Fairfax Media's Jack Waterford as "the best verbal, if not the best oral advocate the Turnbull government has got".

Mr Cormann has generally avoided controversy, despite some notable exceptions. In 2014, he drew criticism for borrowing a term from Arnold Schwarzenegger when he accused an opposition politician of being "an economic girlie man".

Opposition politicians rebuked him for sending the wrong message to girls and boys. Mr Cormann denied it was a gender-specific insult.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Cormann speaks to reporters in 2015

Still, his elevation to acting prime minister demonstrated how much Mr Turnbull valued "his go-to-man when it comes to doing deals" with political opponents, according to News Corp Australia columnist Joe Spagnolo.

After learning he would be acting prime minister, Mr Cormann described himself as a beneficiary of "that great Australia reality".

"What I say to all of my fellow migrants always is that Australia is a country where if you put your shoulder to the wheel and work hard and do the best you can to make a difference, there is no limit to what you can achieve," he said on Friday.

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