Mike Pezzullo: Despot in waiting……

Sep 30, 2023
Autocrat, tyrant and corruption concept. Image:iStock / Shutter2U

One Mike Pezzullo a coup does not make. But a few such characters pose a serious question to the health and ticker of democracy. If Canberra’s most powerful bureaucrat can entertain thoughts about swimming deeply in a political process he should be viewing from the sidelines, then we are no longer dealing with appointees who know their limits.

Such conduct, as happens so much these days, was revealed via texts poured over by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes to Liberal Party lobbyist and former vice president of the NSW Liberals, Scott Briggs. In a series of articles, Pezzullo’s megalomania and addiction to secrecy are unveiled, even though nothing in them is particularly shocking.

In one piece, reporters Nick McKenzie, Michael Bachelard and Amelia Ballinger note how Pezzullo “spent years using a political back channel to two Liberal prime ministers to undermine political and public service enemies, to promote the careers of conservative politicians he considered allies and to lobby to muzzle the press.”

In yet another one of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ill-considered decisions, Pezzullo found himself running the country’s colossal, centralising monster known as Home Affairs in 2017. It did not take long for the messages, spiced by ambition, ambition, and venality, to start being sent. Amounting to approximately a thousand in total spanning five years, and sent over such platforms as WhatsApp and Signal, Pezzullo’s character is revealed with snappy venom.

In August 2018, during one of Canberra’s killing season episodes when PMs await assassination, Pezzullo sends the following text to Briggs: “I don’t want to interfere but you won’t be surprised to hear that in the even[t] 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 can only express his agreement.

The views continue incessantly. Defence Minister Marise Payne is rubbished as being “completely ineffectual” and “a problem” for the government. Payne had to “stop thinking and acting like a Foreign Minister lite… she looks weak. And she doesn’t have a clear view of the national interest – it’s just whatever Defence wants.” Christopher Pyne, who then occupied the folio as defence industry minister, is also given a serve: [g]et rid of Pyne from that silly portfolio. You can say that he has done his job!” On that score, Pezzullo might have had a point.

One of his largest targets is former Liberal Attorney-General George Brandis. Brandis proved to be one of the sternest critics of the creation of the super ministry that became Home Affairs. One can see why, as it would prune and pair away agencies previously under the watch of Australia’s first legal officer, leaving the secretary in hegemonic majesty. Brandis, complained Pezzullo, was “hand braking” the intended reforms and engaged in that distasteful practice of “lawyering” public servants “into a state of befuddlement”.

It is an almost mock comic display: the civil servant, not wishing to interfere, yet showing a deep desire to do so, despite claiming in a 2018 speech that public servants “absent” themselves “from any partisan discussions and avoid exposure to raw politics.” Risibly, he goes on to state in the speech that Departmental secretaries had ‘a particular obligation to protect the boundary between the political and the administrative.’

In the froth and foam of concern about Pezzullo is the suggestion of any surprise that his roguish behaviour has surfaced. The Australian Public Service Code has long been a mockery in insisting on the apolitical stance of its employees. Over the decades, the major parties have increasingly politicised such appointments, making the giving of fearless advice a dead letter. If you wish to advance up the ladder, mind what you tell the party hacks.

Andrew Podger, writing in November 2021, noted that the degree of independence expected by public servants within the Westminster system had “shifted towards the political sphere by a number of developments over recent decades,” and not merely touching upon “the appointment and termination processes of senior public services.” This had taken many forms: the habitual resort to using political advisers, the gluttonous pursuit of advice from consultants and contractors, and “the closer control of communications and the weakening of checks and balances such as the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), FOI Act oversight and the ombudsman.”

One of Canberra’s longest serving veterans of the press gallery, Michelle Grattan, always leaves the impression of being permanently surprised, but regarding the bureaucrat, she could only call it “extraordinary behaviour”. If Grattan dipped her toes in the foetid swamp of Canberra, she might have noticed changes that made Pezzullo’s behaviour far from extraordinary.

Over his tenure, he has made pronouncements on policy much as a despot-in-waiting would. When Dutton assumed the reins as Home Affairs Minister, Pezzullo found himself in the pink. Even after Dutton was shuffled over to the Defence portfolio, Canberra’s most bolshie public servant had no desire to muzzle his views. In his ANZAC Day address to his staff in 2021, Pezzullo seemed to forget that he was neither a member of the military, nor a politician. His address, entitled “The Longing for Peace, the Curse of War”, exhorted Australians to prepare for blood and gore: “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 address went on to use a cod version of history – and US history, at that. Showing an amateur’s spirit in terms of delivery and reading, Pezzullo recalled US Army General Douglas MacArthur’s address to the West Point Military academy in May 1962. Given MacArthur’s own inability to distinguish the duties of a military officer from that of the political office (President Harry S. Truman did have to fire him as a consequence), this example was revealing. Cadets heard from the General how “their mission was to train and fight and, when called upon, to win their nations’ wars.”

Not satisfied with cribbing MacArthur, the secretary went to work on US President Dwight D. Eisenhower who, in April 1953, “rallied his fellow Americans to the danger posed by the amassing of Soviet military power, and the new risks of military aggression”. His choice here was odder than that of MacArthur’s, given Eisenhower’s own warning about the perils the Military-Industrial complex posed to democracy.

Bureaucracy, as Max Weber so accurately identified, is the unaccountable, hyper-secret malignancy at the heart of government. The fatter and flabbier this entity gets, the more contempt is shown towards accountability and any efforts to shed light on practices. The case of Pezzullo is particularly striking in that regard. Even now, he is merely being stood aside as he faces an investigation by former public service commissioner, Lynelle Briggs. Instead of being quarantined, his virus will continue as a precedent in Canberra. Politicians of all stripes, beware.

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