Michael Pezzullo, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs and arguably the most powerful Canberra bureaucrat, spent years trying to manipulate government from behind the scenes.
He argued for an even harsher policy towards refugees, for muzzling media freedom and for concentrating power in the hands of a few “trusted” ministers.
Nine Newspapers have published a string of messages between Pezzullo and a key Liberal Party operative, Scott Briggs, who was in regular contact with former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison and who sometimes passed their requests for “favours” back to Pezzullo.
Pezzullo has been a key driver of Australia’s cruel policy towards refugees, including leading Operation Sovereign Borders, which involved offshore detention and boat turnbacks.
In 2015, he was central to the creation of Australian Border Force—the militarised wing of his department.
But these aren’t the reasons Pezzullo has cleared his desk, expected never to return. His “crime” was to interfere in politics when public servants are meant to be neutral.
In reality, however, senior public servants are not subject to the same rules that govern staff in areas like Centrelink or Tax.
One of Australia’s most famous senior public servants was “Nugget” Coombs, who played a leading role in in the post-war Labor Chifley government. Despite never holding elected office, he exercised political influence as an administrator and advisor.
In the 1970s, another senior public servant, Arthur Tange, re-organised Australia’s military and gained a reputation for telling his ministers what they should do.
Pezzullo had preached the neutrality of the public service but his messages showed him to be a manipulative hypocrite. His downfall gives us a glimpse of how our rulers operate—a peek behind the curtain at the values of the ruling class.
Among the messages Pezzullo sent to the Liberal leadership via Briggs were:
- “I don’t wish to interfere but you won’t be surprised to hear that in the event of ScoMo [Scott Morrison] getting up [as Prime Minister] I would like to see Dutton come back to HA [Home Affairs].”
- “You need a right winger in there—people smugglers will be watching … “Any suggestion of a moderate going in would be potentially lethal viz OSB [Operation Sovereign Borders].”
- “Any chance of being able to rehabilitate Abbott and to bring the conservatives more into line?”
- “Parliamentary route is now contaminated with a few exceptions. We need to build a meritocracy by stealth and run government through the bureaucracy, working to 4-5 powerful and capable Ministers.”
Commentators are arguing that Pezzullo is an outlier. Former Liberal Attorney-General George Brandis described him as a lone wolf.
But Pezzullo is not alone in pushing a reactionary agenda. His counterparts at the Department of Human Services and the Department of Social Services rammed through Robodebt against lawyers’ advice.
His rightwing views have been tolerated or rewarded by ministers for years, both Labor and Coalition.
He was an adviser to Foreign Affairs minister Gareth Evans in the Hawke and Keating years and became deputy chief of staff to then Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley.
Under Rudd and Gillard, he led the Defence White Paper team and was principal author of the 2009 Defence White Paper.
He was promoted by Tony Abbott to lead immigration and border protection under minister Scott Morrison before Malcolm Turnbull appointed him to head Home Affairs when it was created in 2017.
When Labor won in 2022, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil kept Pezzullo on as a “safe pair of hands”. Even after the messages were revealed, Labor dared not sack him, leaving his fate in the hands of public service processes.
Pezzullo shares the prejudices common to many of our rulers. In 2021, he told his staff in an ANZAC Day address that “the drums of war beat”—on the same day that Defence Minister Peter Dutton warned of war with China.
Pezzullo wanted to bring back a system known as D Notices, which allows the government to shut down reporting on issues deemed sensitive to “national security”.
But he is far from alone in attacking media freedom. Under the Coalition, two whistleblowers, Richard Boyle and David McBride, were charged for talking to journalists. Labor has refused to drop the cases.
Pezzullo is not just a public servant. As a central part of the government apparatus on $900,000 a year he is a member of the Australian ruling class.
It’s a tight-knit layer which includes those who own or control major businesses, generals, judges, senior politicians and senior bureaucrats.
Members are often connected by schooling or marriage. The head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is Glyn Davis, former Vice-Chancellor (in other words, CEO) of the University of Melbourne.
His wife, Margaret Gardner, was VC of Monash University and is now Governor of Victoria.
Senior public servants can expect to join the “directors’ club” that runs Australian big business.
Megan Clark, former head of the Australian Space Agency and chief executive of the CSIRO, for example, is on the board of Rio Tinto.
Pezzullo broke formal public service rules by intervening in the political game. But the idea that the state is neutral is a myth. His messages reveal his arrogance and the class power of his position as secretary of Home Affairs.
Our rulers scheme with each other (and occasionally against each other) but they always scheme against the working class. Just for once we’ve been given a glimpse.
By David Glanz