Journalists from The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and Sixty Minutes have at last exposed the efforts by Mike Pezzullo, Secretary of Home Affairs, to influence government in favour of conservative politicians and by insisting that press freedom be stifled.
In addition to undermining Ministers and public servants, this powerful Secretary has for years displayed tendencies as means of strong government, but no one said, ‘Here is a line in the sand, this behaviour is neither professional nor constructive, mend your ways or go.’
In the absence of such a line in the sand, Pezzullo accumulated power and built a culture in which employees felt fearful and politicians intimidated.
Pezzullo’s amalgamation of numerous government agencies into one gargantuan Department of Home Affairs under his and Minister Peter Dutton’s control gave warning signs of the authoritarianism to come. Federal Police, ASIO, Australian Border Force, immigration, customs, counter terrorism and emergency management became accountable to Pezzullo. His taste for military practices showed in his introduction of police style uniforms for Australian Border Force.
In response to these developments, if no one in Canberra raised more than an eyebrow, Pezzullo must have thought he had a blank cheque to do what he liked.
In July 2018, in a long-winded sermon to his senior staff, Pezzullo revealed that he was full of himself, convinced of his wisdom, apparently thinking that issuing orders was a brand of efficiency. He identified his philosophy of leadership, ‘I expect you to fully read this Blueprint for Home Affairs.’ His message included a threat, ‘I will use your demonstrated efforts to realize the Blueprint when assessing your performance and considering future opportunities for you in the Department.’
In the same missive, sounding like King Henry V at the battle of Agincourt, he wrote, ‘Do not micromanage capable subordinates but do not hesitate to spring into action when decisive interaction is required.’ He finished on what sounds like guilt coupled to hypocrisy, ‘Our portfolio is sometimes seen as a behemoth which puts at risk liberty and personal freedom. You and I know that not to be true.’
Apparently preoccupied with influencing Liberal party leadership and the choice of Ministers, Pezzullo still had time for insulting his staff and his Department. Staff morale in Home Affairs dropped. By 2020, a quarter of senior staff had left.
Pezzullo derided parliamentary practices, not least inquiries conducted by Senate Estimates Committees. Senators Jordan Steel John and Rex Patrick, who were gutsy enough to question Pezzullo practices, received confronting telephone calls.
Pezzullo rang Senator Patrick to complain about the Senators’ comments on the Secretary’s attitudes to the media. Pezzullo presumably knew he was on firm ground. A culture of authoritarianism was supported by the Minister for Immigration. In defence of Pezzullo, Minister Dutton derided the Senator, ‘I have always found Senator Patrick to be a person of the sort of character who would seek to misrepresent the Secretary’s words.’
Journalists’ September 25 depiction of ‘Pezzullo’s power play’ have concentrated on behind the scenes correspondence between the public servant and a Liberal Party power broker Scott Briggs, but years of Pezzullo despotic-like administration as a form of leadership, have received less attention.
Sociologist Max Weber described bureaucrats’ concern with control and efficiency as a form of violence which could trap people in an ‘iron cage’ from which it would be difficult to escape. Novelist Franz Kafka described nightmares caused by the inflexibility of bureaucratic figures who, until found out, were inaccessible and usually invisible.
Responses to Pezzullo’s attempts to influence government, in particular by deriding politicians whom he labelled moderate, have so far been formal and polite. Pezzullo practices they say, were ‘operating well outside the Westminster system and rules for public servants’, though AJ Brown, Professor of public policy and law at Griffith University, insists that Pezzullo’s behaviour has made his position ‘untenable almost instantly.’
In any subsequent inquiry into the Pezzullo attempts to influence government, there should also be space to explain how despotism can be tolerated as leadership, a style from which so many will have suffered.
There is still time to draw that line in the sand which says that Pezzullo-like bids for power have ignored the value of supportive, day to day administration so necessary in building a trustworthy democracy.