Paralysis by analysis: Extravagance clots Michael Pezzullo’s security sermon (Canberra Times, Nov 3)

Pezzullo’s 2020 list tries to cover everything, a serious failure. As pointed out by US scholars, if policy makers try to address all imaginable threats, security will paralyse government.

On March 13, 2019, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, gave a speech titled “Seven Gathering Storms – National Security in the 2020s”. Boosting his credentials, he claimed he’d “seen enough of the past to perhaps have something useful to say about the future”. He half covered his tracks, saying his “storms” were “not a list of predictions”. That was just as well because two days later, on March 15, a 28-year-old Australian shot and killed 51 people in two mosques and an Islamic centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. Neither the risk of such an atrocity nor a COVID-type pandemic was in Mr Pezzullo’s warnings.

Well, it’s often not easy to see around the corner. Many years ago a genuinely great Commonwealth public servant prophesied that it would be impossible to get Australians to drink beer from cans. Whatever, it’s to be hoped the two big gaps in Mr Pezzullo’s “storms” caused a slight blush to flush his cheeks. If a speech he’s given on October 13 this year is anything to go by, it would seem the shadow in his 2019 crystal ball has registered. He now says he did not intend his 2019 forebodings “to cover all risks”. Then his October contribution expands his list of “storms” from seven to about 50.

Although his 2019 list missed major events within a year, Mr Pezzullo claims his new one will provide “a framework of risks” for the next hundred years. This “expanded register” has got almost the lot from nuclear war to the “killer asteroid”, an event that apparently comes around about every 500,000 years – keep your heads down. Yet Mr Pezzullo now omits both the possibility that God might bring forward Judgment Day and thereby conclude His human experiment on planet Earth and the grave risk he’s demonstrated, that security analysts will get things wrong.

But Mr Pezzullo’s 2020 list has a more serious failing; it tries to cover everything. As two US scholars have recently pointed out, if policy makers try to address all imaginable threats, security will paralyse government.

So in 2019 Mr Pezzullo provided a deeply flawed risk assessment and this year he’s dished up one that’s near to useless.

What more of the October 2020 oration?

Unity has no invariably inherent value. It can be useful but universal appeals for unity easily turn into recipes for unhappiness for some and the gratuitous compromise of civil liberties for all.

First, the orator indulges in unconvincing intellectual pretensions. For example, he drags into his text an astounding array of intellectual personages – including Thomas Hobbes, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, Schmitt, Derrida, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. It’s unlikely a comparable collection has ever been lined up in a speech by any Commonwealth officer either politician or public servant.

Mr Pezzullo says, we have to leave “some thinkers behind”. Hobbes, one of the most sophisticated and complex English philosophers, is given the bird. Without making apparent allowance for the possibility his desire for a strong ruler might have been affected by the terrible English civil war in the 1640s during which he went into exile in Paris, Mr Pezzullo dismisses Hobbes in three and half lines. Sorry Tom, you’ve had your day so it’s to be hoped you can understand why Mike has put you in the shithouse. Never mind, you may find therein certain characters listed above, including Schmitt and Foucault who deserve such undistinguished premises.

Second, Mr Pezzullo is a master of clotted “prose”. Cast a cold eye over these rippers from October:

  • “Security is not solely a performative domain (to adapt an idea from linguist philosophy) in so far as the ‘speech acts’ of security do not in themselves fully constitute security effects.”
  • “In the end, security effects construct social life insofar as they underpin prosperity and unity, whereby the greater social end is the pursuit of happiness or ‘utility’, in the sense that a philosopher would use that term.”

There’s lots more of such guff for those with a stomach for it and who might remain unconcerned that unclear writing might signify unclear thinking.

Third, Mr Pezzullo seems to assume that “the pursuit of happiness” and “unity” have unqualified value. His orations are peppered with these words. Notwithstanding the imprimatur of the United States declaration of independence, wise, sensible people don’t sit down and decide to pursue happiness. That’s a fool’s errand often ending in hedonism, selfishness and injury to social cohesion which Mr Pezzullo seems also to value. Happiness typically derives from other things – good works, attainments, the satisfactions of congenial society, procreation and, for the thirsty, a few stiff drinks. Happiness should not be an end in itself; it should be a by-product of worthy activity. And “unity”? Unity about what? Thought? Religion? Politics? Spare us, please. Unity has no invariably inherent value. It can be useful but universal appeals for unity easily turn into recipes for unhappiness for some and the gratuitous compromise of civil liberties for all.

Possibly buoyed by the rapture of his October speech, our orator has more recently shifted up a gear being reported on October 23 as saying that “Regrettably some of these companies [Facebook etc] have taken it upon themselves to seek to detach themselves like a Death Star to basically disconnect themselves from the international society of states…Whether it’s through competition, whether it’s through trust arrangements, whether it’s through the dark web initiatives that we are pursuing, we are going to have to deal with this galactic empire.” Yikes! Yet as Mike is now taking on the mitigation of galaxy-wide risks, if a “Black Hole” decides to swallow our solar system, it’s to be hoped he will be able to provide timely warning and comprehensive advice on all precautions necessary to keep life and limb in the best possible alignment. As Buzz Lightyear urges “To infinity and beyond!”

Security in general and national security in particular are obviously important responsibilities for the Commonwealth government and they will always be surrounded by risks. It’s legitimate, and it can be useful, for public servants to discuss publicly these areas of policy and administration provided they:

  • clearly explain the environment in plain terms free from exaggeration and hyperbole
  • justify risks and their grading with evidence, and
  • neither advocate government policy nor criticise alternatives to it.

On these terms only a soft marker could give Mr Pezzullo a pass mark.

With the opacity of bits of the evidence, there’s a special danger that practitioners in the security trade will see what they want to see rather than what is there. Thus, in a message to his staff in May this year Mr Pezzullo says “For me one question has been answered beyond all doubt…what might be the best construct by which to organise the most effective civil defence, to bring together all capacities, capabilities and teams, to harness technology, to adapt the strengths which have been forged in response to natural hazards and terror, to bring to bear deep industry and infrastructure connections? The answer: the apparatus of Home Affairs.” This observation fails to see that Home Affairs does not “bring together all capacities… etc” to deal with contemporary hazards, that much administrative machinery has been created outside of it and that Audit Office reports on administrative bungles provide enough embarrassment to last the “apparatus” a lifetime. Indeed, more ignominy can confidently be expected because the structure of the Home Affairs portfolio doesn’t satisfy basic machinery of government principles.

Mr Pezzullo says he intends “to return at some future point to the issue of the design and functioning of public institutions and national ‘sectors’ in the light of [his] broad conception of security”. It’s hoped that when that awesome hour comes our orator speaks clearly, unextravagantly and gives his vast stock of clichés a well-deserved rest. And he should leave poor Mr Hobbes alone – he’s been bashed up enough and, having died in 1679, is in no condition to respond. As a humble subordinate, official Pezzullo should also be meticulously careful, consistent with Public Service Commission guidance on public comment by public servants, not to intrude into territory that is the preserve of politicians – the advocacy and critique of policy. But for now we must wait until he next strides to the lectern, a prospect about which the nation must be drooling in anticipation.

Republished from the Canberra Times 

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Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. 

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