Pezzullo, like Campbell, has brought shame on the Public Service

Sep 27, 2023
Canberra Parliament House at Twilight.

Mike Pezzullo must be removed to restore integrity and protect our democracy.

Recent revelations of highly inappropriate political behaviour and interventions by Mike Pezzullo, the Secretary of the powerful Home Affairs Department, have sent yet another shockwave through the Australian Public Service (APS). They are symptomatic of systemic issues plaguing the APS. And speaking from my perspective as a First Nations Australian, Pezzullo, like Kathryn Campbell, has brought deep shame upon the APS. It is thus imperative that he be held accountable. If he doesn’t step down, he must be dismissed.

The APS is supposed to be built on the principles of ethical leadership and integrity enshrined in the APS Code of Conduct. Public servants, especially those in senior positions, must lead by example. They should uphold and promote the highest standards of public service. The revelations about Pezzullo raise serious concerns about his commitment to impartiality, a core value of the APS. His partisan interventions and personal bias in dealings with senior Coalition ministers cast a deep shadow over the APS’s integrity and impartiality. Furthermore, his secret lobbying to censor and punish journalists threatened freedom of speech and Australia’s democracy. His actions were a clear breach of the fundamental principle that public servants should act honestly and professionally.

The APS Code of Conduct sets the standards. It mandates that public servants must uphold the APS Values and Employment Principles at all times – even outside of work. In his role as Secretary, Pezzullo and those under him, would have used this Code of Conduct to discipline and dismiss many public servants. The same rules should apply to him. Indeed, one could argue even more stringently so given his leadership role.

Trust is the linchpin of a Secretary’s relationship with their Minister. A Secretary must be able to serve any government professionally and impartially. The messages sent by Pezzullo raise serious doubts about his capacity to maintain trust across the political spectrum. He engaged in what the late Professor Peter Aucoin termed “promiscuously partisan” behaviour. He crossed the line between public service, politics and personal benefit.

Rebuilding trust between the APS, political representatives, and the public is essential. This should be built on the foundation of impartiality, transparency, and ethical conduct. Legislative changes and a renewed focus on merit in appointment processes for Secretaries will be critical steps in this endeavour.

In the meantime, Pezzullo must go. Like Campbell, his actions have brought deep shame upon the APS and our democracy. It is our collective responsibility to address this. During my 31-year career as a public servant, Gordon de Brouwer was one of two Secretaries who I held in the highest regard, the other was Frances Adamson. What I admired about both was their honesty, integrity and commitment to Australia. I’m sure in his current role as the Public Service Commissioner, Gordon de Brouwer will make the right decision on Pezzullo who must be held accountable for his actions and the damage he has done. Pezzullo must be removed to restore integrity and protect our democracy.

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