Department of Home Affairs contradicts every sensible principle of organisation design

Oct 5, 2023
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What a fabulous trove The Pezzullo Papers are. The hundreds of recently disclosed text messages sent by the Home Affairs Secretary Mr Michael Pezzullo to a person described as a “Liberal Party powerbroker” are morbidly fascinating. Poor Pezzullo – in a few days he attracted as much public commentary, most of it unflattering, as platoons of traditionally reticent departmental Secretaries would cop in their lifetimes and afterwards.

Indeed, saying much more about the particulars of the Pezzullo Papers is probably uncalled for. Their author is now being investigated and if he’s found to have offended relevant provisions of the Public Service Act, his public service career may be finished, an irony for a person who seems to think of himself as a “finisher”.

Still, if Pezzullo does end up on the long end of the Job Seeker queue he will be able to wile away many an hour in wistful contemplation of the tens of thousands of words of recent media coverage he’s drawn down on himself. He might even find time to prepare yet another intellectually forbidding speech to add to the dozens now proudly notified on his Department’s website, a collection notable for its eccentricity and pretension, and one that gets funnier as time goes by, a rare quality it shares with grand works like the memoirs of Mr Rudy Vallee.

But let’s put aside the question of whether Pezzullo has offended the provisions of the law and consider more in the abstract the implications of the behaviour implicit in the text messages he is alleged to have sent.

As reported, they show an official engaged as part of his job in political behaviour, among other things. Here is a politician in disguise and, in this case, with a disguise augmented by encryption.

This would not be exceptional in the United States where the heads of departments are appointed significantly on the basis of their political allegiances and sympathies and who are expected to behave accordingly. Think of Dr Kissinger, a chap Pezzullo might be happy to be bracketed with no matter how far-fetched that coupling, as it were, might be.

And this is the point. When officials behave as politicians, the overwhelming temptation will be to appoint them primarily on the basis of their politics. Thus, if the behaviour alleged to have been indulged in by Pezzullo were to become widespread, as sure as eggs are eggs, Secretary and other senior public service appointments would get to be made on the basis of politics. That is, the Commonwealth would have a senior public service like the United States, one graphically described in Hugh Heclo’s famous book “A Government of Strangers”, a world in which disruption, inefficiency and more disorderly administration are tolerated in the interests of responsiveness and loyalty. Take your pick.

Federal governments have picked merit based, non-politicised arrangements although in 1984 the Hawke government came within a hair’s breadth of adopting the American model. These things are matters of value and judgment but anyone doubting the immense costs of politicised public service appointments would do well to read Heclo’s bracing book to see what Australia would lose. But to repeat, the more of the behaviour alleged of Pezzullo, the more likely Australia would be to go down the American path.

Indeed, a recent article in the Australian Financial Review said that “…Pezzullo cuts a much more American than Australian figure” and that there should be “…more public servants like him.”

But assuming the Government wants to stick with the present senior staffing system, what should it do to strengthen it and minimise the risk of a repeat of the current imbroglio?

Principally, it should withdraw the inadequate and intellectually flawed Public Service Amendment Bill which has yet again been embarrassed and prepare a replacement containing, for starters, new provisions for the appointment and tenure of departmental Secretaries and incorporating a fundamental rethink of how behaviour in the public service is regulated.

Having the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, a position in the thick of political pressures, as the primary adviser on Secretary appointments increases the danger of risky appointees. Thus, in line with the recommendations of the Thodey Review, the Public Service Commissioner, a statutorily independent officer at a step removed from political pressures, should be the prime adviser on Secretary appointments and always be assisted by a committee which that officer should chair. Further, the existing fixed period contracts for Secretaries should be abandoned to provide healthier policy advising conditions, with dismissals being for cause and by due process rather than arbitrary as they are now.

Second, there is more than enough evidence that the regulation of official behaviour by values and principles, including “stewardship” for Secretaries, and a code of conduct, has been insufficient. Thus, the relevant provisions in the Public Service Act should be thoroughly re-thought with a view to making the rules less ambiguous, possibly more prescriptive and better able to support a non-American kind of public service.

Mr Pezzullo’s present prominence is a reminder of the credit he’s been given for his hand in the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio. This may be his gravest mistake as the portfolio contradicts just about every sensible principle of organisation design that can be imagined. It’s as if it had been set up to be the tragic failure it has been. And it’s not as if it is too big – there are many bigger agencies. Nor is too powerful – there are many more powerful, such misplaced concerns likely being agitated by Pezzullo’s pushfulness and willingness to attract attention and create enemies. The real problem is that the portfolio is organisationally nonsensical. Therefore, the Government should take the chance to:

  • establish a free-standing Department of Immigration for a major government function that has been relegated in Home Affairs
  • create a statutory authority to give proper independence to most of the present functions of the Border Force, especially the customs functions
  • make that authority responsible for detention facilities but consolidate immigration compliance functions, and asylum and visa decision-making in a new, re-invigorated Immigration Department
  • return ASIO to the Attorney-General’s portfolio, and
  • distribute any remnant Home Affairs functions to the most appropriate department or agency.

Finally, there is the question of what to do about the Pezzullo Papers.

The investigation now being undertaken into his behaviour should ask Pezzullo to provide a copy of all of them; it certainly can’t rely only on what has been published in the press to establish the rightness or wrongness of his doings.

Then there is the question of whether these documents are covered by the Archives Act. It would seem they could and should be as it is hard to imagine them being prepared if Pezzullo had not been the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs. That is, in their unusual way, they’re documents prepared for the purposes of the Commonwealth.

If the documents are covered by the Archives Act, they should be immediately put on open access so members of the public can see in their entirety what has been done and so be more confident in the outcome of the disciplinary investigation. These documents may be Mr Pezzullo’s most significant legacy – a forever testament to an officer whose like we may never see again for donkey’s years.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

Pezzullo departure should end the Home Affairs experiment

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