Was Pezzullo recording leak from a federal agency monitoring his communications?

Nov 29, 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 sacking of Mike Pezzullo was inevitable once Nine media published his email correspondence with a Liberal party lobbyist and powerbroker. So far, however, the Public Service Commission and the government is doing altogether too much to avoid detailing the circumstances that provide chapter and verse of the numerous improprieties that covered the correspondence, or the Pezzullo management style and his relationship with the coalition government setting that made them possible.

Pezzullo was the most interesting and controversial federal public servant of the past decade. It was not merely a matter of being located where the coalition was working hard to confect a sense of crisis and of the prospect of an uncontrolled foreign invasion by aliens. It was that once in power he set out to exploit it, both by the expansion of his control over national and internal security matters, and that his domination of the field involved undermining anyone who stood in his way.

When he became head of Immigration, he quickly pushed out most of the existing senior management, replacing them with people who saw the job much like him. Having everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, never disagreeing with the organ grinder was very important. In meetings of departmental secretaries, he attempted to bully and dominate, often belittle his colleagues, including secretaries more senior. He regarded many as ill-trained in history and public service tradition – in both of which he was himself an expert, in his own opinion. As the correspondence confirms he thought himself the ideal secretary of defence, perhaps even of PM&C. Few of his colleagues agreed with such self-assessments, or at his proclaimed expertise and feel for foreign intelligence.

But his demise is not, strictly, a mere result of his hubris, or his complete failures in departmental administration, which have cost taxpayers billions. Or, as such, the treachery made manifest in the email correspondence. But it owes a lot to a lack of judgment – whether in interpreting evidence, in appointing staff, in managing resources and in crossing the line between being an adviser to government and being a player in government.

The findings against him are devastating. Pezzullo is said to have used his power, status and authority to seek to gain personal benefits and advantages. He is said to have engaged in gossip and to have undermined his colleagues. Although a very fierce critic of journalism and journalists who did not hesitate to call for police investigation of leaks, he leaked sensitive government information when it suited him. He failed to act apolitically, and he failed to disclose conflicts of interest.

We do not yet know the provenance of the email chains that were leaked to journalists in the Nine system, and which finally brought him down. The bland public findings of the review by former Public Service and Royal Commission Lynelle Briggs suggest without confirming their accuracy.

It has been several times asserted, without explanation, that the documents were originally lawfully obtained (before, presumably being leaked to Nine). That suggests that it was under warrant. But no explanation has been offered, and that is not good enough, even if some investigation is still proceeding. Were police (at that stage in the Home Affairs portfolio and deeply under Pezzullo domination) monitoring his communications in pursuit of some investigation? Was Pezzullo a collateral casualty of an investigation into the Liberal Party lobbyist? Were security agencies, with special powers to decode doubly encrypted correspondence involved? Was the National Anti-Corruption Commission, or its predecessor agency, involved?

The public deserves to know more about the how, the where and why — particularly given the nefarious purposes involved. The brief and uninformative statement – along with its hypocritical concerns for privacy laws – is not enough. If it must be dragged out bit by bit it would be altogether in keeping with Pezzullo’s known commitment to open and accountable government but also, alas to the present government’s.

First published in the Canberra Times.

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