Rot in the civil service: Mike Pezzullo terminated

November 29, 2023
Mike Pezzullo at a 2016 ministerial meeting in Washing DC. Photo: US Department of Homeland Security/Wikimedia Commons

There was no better example of a politicised public service than Mike Pezzullo, its former Home Affairs Secretary.

His rise to power paralleled the emergence of a super ministry during the Malcolm Turnbull government. Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wanted a broader ministry of home affairs.

Instead, what we got in 2017 was a giant department run by Home Affairs Miniter Peter Dutton and Pezzullo.

The extent of Pezzullo’s involvement in the machinations of government and, it followed, party policy, was revealed by texts sent to Liberal Party lobbyist and former NSW Liberal vice president Scott Briggs.

These became the subject of a joint investigation mounted by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes.

In August 2018, in the midst of another potential palace coup against a sitting Prime Minister, Pezzullo was indiscreetly opening up to Briggs.

In one message he said. “I don’t want to interfere but you won’t be surprised to hear that in the event of Scomo [Scott Morrison] getting up I would like to see [Peter] Dutton come back to HA [Home Affairs]. No reason for him to stay on the backbench that I can see.” Briggs does not demur.

Pezzullo’s targets in the government varied. Defence Minister Marise Payne was deemed “completely ineffectual”. Former Liberal Attorney-General George Brandis was excoriated for befuddling public servants, although Pezzullo’s reasons for doing so are clear: it was Brandis, as Australia’s top legal officer, who expressed concerns that Canberra did not need a ministry of such size.

Pezzullo was candid about his views on war while the Coalition was in government. He told staff in his 2021 ANZAC Day address that Australians best prepare for war.

“Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war.”

The speech is marked his blatant misunderstanding of the legacies left US generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D Eisenhower. Pezzullo ignores one vital aspect of MacArthur: his sacking for being too defiant of commander-in-chief of the time, President Harry S Truman.

After Prime Minister Anthony Albanese received the findings of an independent inquiry into Pezzullo’s conduct, by Lynnelle Briggs, he revealed Pezzullo had been terminated from his position.

We have little to go on regarding the findings and the report will not be made public on the basis that it will lead to the disclosure of personal information.

But media reports note how the former secretary used his duty, power, status or authority to gain benefits and advantages for himself; engaged in gossip and disrespectful critique of ministers and public servants; failed to keep sensitive government information confidential; failed to remain apolitical in his office and failed to disclose any relevant conflicts of interest.

Keeping such an investigation buried suggests officials are keen to keep matters out of the public glare.

Given that Pezzullo was the most notable panjandrum in Canberra’s bureaucracy, the rot is hardly likely to have remained at the head.

Who else breached protocol? The list is likely to be ugly and long.

As former Senator Rex Patrick said, Albanese has done well to terminate Pezzullo’s appointment but “in the interests of transparency and accountability he must also table Lynelle Briggs’s report in Parliament today”.

Over decades the two major parties have made political appointments as a matter of course, subordinating expertise and fearless advice to party loyalties.

Perversely enough, Pezzullo was a perfect exponent of that tendency: a political civil servant.

The result: Canberra is awash with officialdom terrified to take a different stand to the political agenda of the day. Agree with the government or risk languishing, demotion or worse.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

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