Did unlamented Pezzullo dream of taking the Chinese surrender in Beijing?

Oct 3, 2023
The steward creates obstacles to overthrow and take his place. Lack of a social elevator, usurpation of power. Prevention of leadership positions, corruption and nepotism. Limitation of opportunities. Image: iStock / Andrii Yalanskyi

I have never had much regard for Mike Pezzullo, and my regard is lower for the disclosures this week of Nine and Fairfax journalists of his secret email correspondence with politicians he thought he might be able to influence. As any number of people have said, his position is untenable, and he must look forward to, at best, the hope that some private sector consultancy might pick him up.

The irony has been delicious to see him fall significantly short on principles he long publicly maintained, and thus adds hypocrite to the extensive list of negative epithets his character and personality have long attracted. But, on the whole, I would prefer that he had fallen for the poor quality of his policy ideas, particularly on refugee matters, and the cruel and implacable manner with which he carried them out.

There were always ministers, including Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, who were enthusiastic about Pezzullo’s opinions on this subject, and were eager to accept responsibility, even the credit, for them. But Pezzullo “owned” the policy. In his own judgment it was the more excellent for being both appropriate and morally right, as well as, partly through his own manoeuvrings, bipartisan. That others, including minorities in the mainstream parties were far more squeamish was a matter of complete indifference to him. Other than in lobbying relentlessly to ensure that prime ministers appreciated the need for a hard line (or a right winger in charge as it was put this week) on the subject, with the policy of never taking a backward step lest it be read by wicked people smugglers abroad as some sign of softening of policy.

When people like Pezzullo form clandestine and improper channels to prime ministers, an intention to help the government of the day may be only incidental. An intention to help Pezzullo himself may have been more to the fore, given some inevitable doubt about the attitude of successive prime ministers (Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison) to the minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton. And possibly some suspicion that Pezzullo might be more loyal to Dutton and his general views than to Turnbull, and later Morrison.

The backchannel a sign of personal insecurity

A good deal of personal insecurity might have been involved. The discreet channel was a way of reassuring a prime minister that the Pezzullo regarded the interests of the government ahead of the interests of Dutton. His stated preference for a right-wing minister, possibly Dutton himself, was a preference for a minister most likely to get along with Pezzullo’s hard-line views, and most likely to get along with Pezzullo, very much an acquired taste. Pezzullo was a known quantity to almost all senior ministers, and many of them may have preferred a senior adviser who was less controversial, less abrasive, and less likely to be in perpetual conflict with the media.

From at least the ascension of Turnbull to the prime minister’s chair, any new minister had good grounds upon which they could have asked for a fresh broom. For starters, the department was a mess, and Pezzullo had to be considered the more responsible given the way he had purged departmental managers and insisted that everyone sing hymns composed by Pezzullo, as often as not in Hugo Boss style black uniforms in what seemed to have become Pezzullo’s own paramilitary force.

The department was under regular criticism from Auditors-general for massive expenditure blow-outs, for paying far too much, and for avoiding proper process, with contracts for managing concentration camps, and for hopeless mismanagement of a revamp of the department’s computer system. Pezzullo was very slow to accept any responsibility for such mismanagement, often blamed on the department’s haste to meet government expectations and changing needs and circumstances causing changes to contracts in mid-stream. He was known for his combative style in estimates, compulsive secretiveness, resistance to FOI and to tribunal rulings questioning his, or the minister’s, views on refugee matters.

He was a natural centraliser, wanting all power to be exercised out of his office. He was also an empire builder. He saw in the creation of Home Affairs, for which he had lobbied, the bringing together of all domestic security and intelligence matters, even if, in theory at least, both ASIO and the AFP, in Home Affairs, were statutorily independent of him. He formed immediately his own independent and unaccountable intelligence division in his department and sought to “co-ordinate” the work of ASIO and the AFP into, in effect, a joint departmental view of the world.

He also sought extra security powers, including, in conjunction with the signals agency, a national surveillance system that would have done totalitarian China proud. Characteristically, he thought his own musings on his ambitions a top-secret matter, which, once leaked should spur a damaging and unsuccessful AFP leak investigation. Heads of other national security agencies complained privately that most of the extra funds given to intelligence gathering was being wasted in the creation of positions liaising with the apparatuses Pezzullo had established on his own account.

Pezzullo had an intelligence and defence background, but it would be hard to find a senior professional, from either field or both, with much respect for his wisdom, his knowledge, his much-vaunted sense of history, or, particularly, his judgment. Many of his predictions about external danger to the nation were not borne out by events, and not because of the forestalling of plots. On his watch, government seemed to have only a tenuous feel for the rise of right-wing groups and individuals, and the threat they posed.

Like Kathryn Campbell, the other conspicuous casualty of a decade of coalition government, Pezzullo might have been more effective had he worked on his personal relationships with his peers and those who reported to him. His bullying was usually without respect to race, creed or sex. In fact, he held many of his colleagues in deep contempt, something well known even before emails criticising them were published this week. He tended to dominate weekly meetings of departmental secretaries, interrupting more senior officials and proffering many with unwanted advice. These emails also showed him expressing willingness, if called upon, to take over PM&C, or preferably defence. Sadly, for him at least, the call never came.

The pity is that this deeply unsuitable man, one of the few characters in a public service all too short of people with personality or public association with any public policy or practice, might slide out of the public service alone and unlamented, rather as Ms Campbell has. I suspect that he might have imagined taking the Chinese surrender in Beijing. Or had matters turned otherwise, a march to the executioner’s block, with a jolly jest in the manner of Thomas More.

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