The Anti-China War Book: Pezzullo hears the call again

Apr 23, 2024
Mike_Pezzullo_joined_by_officials_at_the_Five_Country_Ministerial,_Washing_DC,_September_2016._c U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -, Public Domain, Official DHS photo by Jetta Disco.

It is extremely hard to kill off a public figure of the calibre of Mike Pezzullo. As with a person of similar personality, Tony Abbott, one can be sure they are out of the play for good only when their bodies lie at a crossroads at midnight, with a wooden stake through their hearts. Before that, their bloody, broken and bruised bodies may be on display, having suffered pains, indignities and humiliations no other person could survive. But while there is even a glimmer of a pulse, they are plotting their comebacks.

They may be writhing on the ground as the mob celebrates what they regard as their fall. Soon, charity, or decency, may bring a silence, if only to permit the guilty the dignity of donning sackcloth and cilice and retiring to a monastery. But a year of penance is surely enough, he judges. Or at least, his country needs him now.

The resilience, indomitability and lack of shame is not only a matter of ego and narcissism, though I have never seen such cases where there has not been an ample quantity of both. It is because they are thinkers – not necessarily good ones – and place great stock on the survival of their ideas, and the need for them to return to propagate them. They are not put off by being ignored. They are not deterred by being treated with contempt. Nor even by being proven wrong or out of touch with expert and public opinion. They may not even seem to notice the slights or the disregard, but they typically return it without pity when or if they get to the top again.

Most politicians and senior public service managers have strong self-belief and healthy egos – even elements of the sociopath – about them. But the modern variety – particularly at the top – are not usually associated with either a philosophy of action, a theory of good or effective policy, or a capacity or a drive to follow their convictions regardless of the evidence or the circumstances.

Not many departmental secretaries are known for any ideas, deep expertise and experience in any particular field of policy (including economics). Although most served with previous governments with the same loyalty and integrity as with the present one, few are remembered for ever standing up to a minister, or for a principle. Mostly they are managers, rather than leaders, good at organising people or things to the government’s will, but not discernibly adding much value or personality to the process.

They leave no monuments. They may be models of good behaviour, without ever providing an external or internal example. They don’t even leave fingerprints, in the form of materials showing their role in the planning, devising and implementation of policy or program. Occasionally some political and administrative debacle and malfeasance such as Robodebt or Pezzullo’s toadying will have their bad bits featured. But even then, the shameful and unaccountable processes of the public service commission and indefinite delay can usually smother scandal and keep the public in the dark. As intended, the public service commission pretends, by what are proclaimed to be public service values.

Never backward or tactful in coming forward

No-one could ever see Mike Pezzullo as an example of this mould. He was well-known, even before any misdeeds saw him the subject of a public service inquiry, found guilty of public service misdemeanours about which the public is not allowed to know, other than that they involved matters going to his character and his honesty. The sins also included his having a plainly improper backchannel to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to whom he conveyed frankly political advice, some designed for his own advantage. Prime minister Anthony Albanese sacked him after reading the secret report.

It should be noted that even if the information, compliments, and lobbying going via a Liberal Party lobbyist to Turnbull were self-serving, it was also designed to protect the empire he had established (with the help of Turnbull) and the policies he implemented, chiefly through Peter Dutton. The exchanges also made clear that if Pezzullo himself was to be moved on for his loyal service, he would love to be secretary of defence, if not the department of prime minister and cabinet. He was scathing of the abilities of many of his peers.

One might expect that Pezzullo and Pezzulloism were completely dead. He seemed to pass into complete obscurity and well-deserved disgrace. There has been little apparent change in the activities or competence of his home affairs department. Public relations want us to believe his management style is a thing of the past. So too his habit of making gloomy pronouncements out of his portfolio.

This week, however, he was appearing in The Australian calling for more preparation for war. It was enclosed within a typically gloomy Pezzullo reading of the tea leaves and seeing gloom wherever he went. But its special twist, perhaps from the perspectives he developed as he came to fancy himself as the domestic coordinator of the war effort is the need for the revival of the War Book, and an upgrading of efforts to integrate civilian capacities into our arrangements for what would happen if we were attacked by, say, China.

“The end of the Cold War has led to the atomisation of threats – many of these threat groups possess weapons and backing from powerful regional states that in some cases make them as powerful as state-based actors,” he told members of the Williams Foundation.

“Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Middle East, where improved military capabilities are combined with an ideological zealotry that makes normal cost-benefit calculations underpinning deterrence difficult. That makes it difficult for Washington to achieve the type of deterrence on which long-term regional stability is often based.

“And the direct threat to Australia is broad and not narrowly focused on what the Australian Defence Force can do. A sustainable force and a resilient Australia are beyond the scope of narrowly considered defence investments in a ready force. They are all-of-government and all-of-society challenges.”

Focusing the national mind

The war book involves what would have to occur to mobilise and coordinate civilian resources in order to put Australia on a war footing. Pezzulo thinks the very act of preparing such a book could help “focus the national mind.”

“The most important question is whether a nation at large has the structures, capabilities and above all, the mindset and the will that are required to fight and keep fighting to absorb, recover, endure and prevail. These cannot be put in place or engendered on the eve of the storm.”

No doubt some of his ideas about a war book and civilian mobilisation come from his time at home affairs, particularly when the AFP and ASIO were in the portfolio, where he could imagine himself as being at the centre of national security.

Of course, the fact of Pezzullo being in disgrace does not disqualify him from the right to have an opinion, or mean that his ideas are wrong-headed, irrelevant or silly. They stand on their own merit, bearing in mind that he has a background in defence, and has long seen the world as being in deep existential crisis, able, usually to be addressed only by his deep insights. His pessimism, tendency to gloom and apocalyptic scenarios, and Manichean cast of thinking may particularly suit him for anticipating the future of the western alliance should Donald Trump be elected in November. They are of similar perspectives on many things, including the risks of immigration and refugees.

What’s clear, in any event, is that Pezzullo wants back in. He wants to become a player again. Perhaps he is realist enough to appreciate that there is no comeback from the inquiries into him (some of which may be ongoing). But he wants to be back in the debate, allowed to offer his strongly held opinions, to run over those with differing ones, and perhaps with some discretionary access to Top Secret intelligence so that his warnings to the world are up to the minute.

It is obvious he can’t be put back in charge of a department. Experience has, in any event, shown this not to be his strong suit. But could he be allowed to become a grey eminence, giving counsel and the benefit of his experience and specialist understanding of world history and politics to less experienced players?

He has, after all, reminded captive audiences that he might be a shy and retiring professor of history now had he not felt impelled by duty to thrust himself into the defence of the nation. That might still be an option, were any institution to need his expertise. The university character tests would have to be administered with more compassion than was ever counselled by his old department. But it could be disappointing were the nation’s guardians to be deprived of his mastery and command of the important issues.

Perhaps even to be allowed to scribble TOP SECRET or AUSTRALIAN EYES ONLY on the top of friendly notes to senior spooks and defence chieftains, offering his expert and uncensored view on what they should do, what they should tell their ministers, and how they should rebuff the sinister and disloyal views of people who don’t appreciate our mortal danger. Many of these, no doubt, have been missing his expert advice during his exile over the past year.

I expect that not all will welcome him back into the fold. Pezzullo, as a personality, a player and as an analyst is an acquired taste. Not all his old colleagues have appreciated his freely volunteered assessments of their intelligence, character or proper place in the national security ecosystem. Not all would feel that the contest for attention and resources within that system has been missing anything much without his thoughtful interventions at critical moments.

Perhaps it’s a little early for public rehabilitation.

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