Albanese retains Dutton’s right-hand man Mike Pezzullo in home affairs

Former PM Tony Abbott and then Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Michael Pezzullo in 2015. Photo: Nick D/CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikipedia

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s June 22 decision to keep controversial senior public servant Mike Pezzullo on as home affairs secretary doesn’t bode well for those hoping for progressive change.

Pezzullo was a key behind-the-scenes player in the Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison governments.

Abbott appointed Pezzullo as immigration secretary in October 2014, right before now opposition leader Peter Dutton took over the portfolio. Pezzullo then followed the minister to Home Affairs in late 2017, under Turnbull. It was expected that he would join the Liberal MP when he moved to defence last year.

“They’ve signalled bad news by keeping Pezzullo on as the head of the Department of Home Affairs. He presided over a lot of cruel and vicious policies and actions,” said People Just Like Us spokesperson Fabia Claridge.

The refugee rights advocate told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that Pezzullo is close to Dutton and former PM Morrison, adding: “We have to question why they have done this, and what is the scope for change in the future”.

Claridge said Pezzullo “presided over many dastardly actions with refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters seeking refuge” in his role as immigration and home affairs secretary.

The Home Affairs portfolio covers immigration, border control and national security and also incorporated the federal police until Albanese removed it.

Dutton and Pezzullo significantly broadened the reach of intelligence and law enforcement during their little over three years together in charge of home affairs.

The Daily Telegraph article that led the Australian Federal Police, under Pezzullo, to raid the home of then News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst in 2018, detailed leaked correspondence between the home affairs secretary and defence secretary Greg Moriarty discussing the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) spying on domestic targets.

The ASD is a foreign-focused spy agency and such agencies don’t play by the same rules as domestic ones. Therefore, the proposal being discussed was overreach.

However, since then, a series of laws have facilitated the change.

Over the three years that Dutton and Pezzullo held the reins of national security and surveillance laws, the pair legislated draconian powers to break through encrypted online messaging systems and further permit agents to take over online accounts and electronic devices to alter and delete data.

Another reason why retaining Pezzullo in the powerful job is of concern is his suggestion that the nation may be “bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war”. His old boss, Dutton, had been saying this for some time, putting the nation on something of a war footing.

Pezzullo began his career in the public service when he joined Defence in 1987; he became deputy strategy secretary in 2006.

Pezzullo was asked to tone it down last year after he sent out an Anzac Day “message”, in which he implied that the “drums of war” are beating — China — and that it was up to “free nations” to continue to “remain armed, strong and ready for war” against “tyranny’s threat to freedom”.

The warning about a coming war in the Indo Pacific overlaps with the new PM’s rhetoric at the NATO summit in Spain in which he said that China and Russia had “no limits”.

“I would like to see increased interoperability with the armed forces of those Asia Pacific nations,” Albanese told AAP on June 27. “China is becoming increasingly aggressive and now they have that relationship with Russia.”

While these words from the new leader should signal alarm bells for Labor’s constituents, one can assume it warms the heart of the home affairs secretary.

[Paul Gregoire writes for the Sydney Criminal Lawyers, where this article was first published.]