Pezzullo story points to serious systemic problems in the APS

Sep 26, 2023
Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Michael Pezzullo reacts during Senate Estimates at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, February 13, 2023. Image:AAP/ Lukas Coch

The revelations in the Nine newspapers that Mike Pezzullo, secretary of the powerful Home Affairs department, shared with Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs are certainly extraordinary. But, just like the revelations about Robodebt from the royal commission, they must not be treated as an isolated case but as evidence of serious systemic problems in the Australian Public Service (APS).

So what is expected from public servants in terms of their relationship with government? The answer is in the Public Service Act, which states secretaries – those at the very top of each department – must uphold and promote the APS Values and Employment Principles. One of those values is impartiality:

The APS is apolitical and provides the government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.

The conduct of the public service is overseen by the public service commissioner, who issues legal directions about how bureaucrats must conduct themselves consistent with each APS Value.

Regarding being impartial, this means, among other things:

  • serving the government of the day with high quality professional support, irrespective of which political party is in power and of personal political beliefs
  • ensuring that the individual’s actions do not provide grounds for a reasonable person to conclude that the individual could not serve the government of the day impartially
  • ensuring that management and staffing decisions are made on a basis that is independent of the political party system, free from political bias and not influenced by the individual’s political beliefs
  • implementing government policies in a way that is free from bias, and in accordance with the law.

The APS Code of Conduct requires public servants

at all times to behave in a way that upholds the APS Values and Employment Principles, and the integrity and good reputation of the employee’s Agency and the APS.

In the event that the head of an agency (including a departmental secretary) is alleged to have breached the code, the commissioner is responsible for inquiring into the allegation and reporting to the prime minister. Penalties for breaches include dismissal.

From the details in the article, it is understandable that Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has referred the matter to the commissioner. By implication, the article alleges breaches of the code for not upholding the APS value of impartiality: Pezzullo’s alleged actions not only suggest partisanship, but also lack of objectivity and allowing his personal political beliefs to affect his professional support for the government. It is extremely difficult to see how the messages Pezzullo allegedly sent to Briggs could be seen to be consistent with upholding the values, let alone promoting them as he is required to do.

Pezzullo may claim the material revealed in the article was private, as demonstrated by its encryption. He may also highlight the references the article said he included about his own neutrality. But it would be hard to suggest he was not trying to influence decisions by the government, or that the alleged messages were not highly political.

Moreover, when a person is as senior as Pezzullo, trying to distinguish between public and private behaviour is problematic. I recall telling Max Moore-Wilton, former secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet under John Howard, that his presence at Howard’s election night function in 2001 was inconsistent with his obligation to uphold and promote non-partisanship, despite his claims that this was a private matter in his private time. I noted that, had Kim Beazley won that election, Moore-Wilton would have needed to be able to demonstrate his capacity to serve the new prime minister professionally and impartially.

Trust is the critical ingredient of a secretary’s relationship with their minister. And a secretary does not know who will be their minister tomorrow or next year, whether within the current government or under a new government.

So trust has to be achieved across the parliament and with the Australian public. It is hard to see that Pezzullo’s messages are in any way consistent with such trust. A host of Liberal ministers, had they known of the messages, would have had no trust in Pezzullo, let alone a Labor minister.

At a different time, Pezzullo was on Beazley’s staff. Nothing wrong with that, but it does raise the question of whether he has behaved, to use the late professor of public administration Peter Aucoin’s term, in a “promiscuously partisan” way. That is, crossing the boundary between the public service and politics whoever was in power, for his own personal benefit.

A central issue in the Robodebt case was whether senior public servants were being overly responsive to their ministers and ignoring their obligations to uphold and promote the values (and the law). Public service failures in the sports rorts and Morrison multiple-ministries cases have raised a similar question. Aucoin drew attention to this problem in Australia and other Anglophone countries over a decade ago. Clearly, it has got a lot worse in Australia since then.

My own view is that the contract system for secretaries, which means they are constantly under an implicit threat of losing their jobs, is contributing to excessive willingness to please. There is evidence of some sensible actions by the current APS Commissioner and prime minister and cabinet secretary to place more emphasis on merit in the appointment process.

But more needs to be done, including in the legislation, if we are to rebuild the trust that is essential between the public service and all sides of politics, the parliament and the Australian public.

Another possible measure, but one not directly relevant in the Pezzullo case, is to prohibit any senior public servant from being a member of any political party. That might put some meat on the requirement to promote as well as uphold the value of impartiality.


Original article published by The Conversation on 25 September 2023

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