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Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo does not deserve to remain in his role a minute longer, stood aside or otherwise. He does not deserve the confidence of the current federal government, nor of any that might follow.
The powerful department head should have stood down from his long-time role immediately when it became apparent that his covert political conduct would be exposed, rather than waiting to be told to do so by his supervising minister.
As George Brandis, the attorney-general who drew his ire during the establishment of the Home Affairs Department Pezzullo now runs, writes in The Age, whatever happens to Pezzullo, “his position is plainly untenable, since no minister, Labor or Liberal, will ever be able to trust him again”.
The Age commends Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil for suspending Pezzullo less than a day after this masthead, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes revealed that he spent years using a political back channel to two Liberal prime ministers to undermine political and public service enemies, promote the careers of conservative politicians he considered allies and lobby to muzzle the press. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s promise to expedite an inquiry into the revelations is also welcome.
O’Neil has referred Pezzullo to the newly appointed Australian Public Service Commissioner, Gordon De Broewer, for investigation and says she will not comment further until the investigation is completed. Former Australian public service commissioner Lynelle Briggs has been appointed to oversee the investigation.
Pezzullo’s repeated counselling of Liberal powerbroker Scott Briggs to convey to Coalition prime ministers and others his personal suggestions about who should be in ministerial portfolios amounts to improper conduct that directly breaches the Public Service Act, which requires all public servants to act apolitically.
In many ways, this conduct is the predictable culmination of three decades of inexorable politicisation of the bureaucracy at federal and state levels.
Pezzullo has served Labor and Coalition governments in that time, but under the Coalition he accrued a bureaucratic stronghold perhaps unrivalled since wartime. Outside of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Home Affairs represents the most formidable agglomeration of the nation’s powerful security, immigration and border enforcement agencies. Pezzullo’s role fundamentally vested him with extraordinary influence, and he was trusted implicitly by successive governments to wield that influence judiciously and impartially.
The Public Service Act requires federal public servants to behave at all times with integrity and apolitically. These values and the statute were referenced by Pezzullo in speeches to the Institute of Public Administration Australia in 2018 and November 2022.
In 2018, he declared: “An apolitical public service is one of the key institutions in our Westminster system … What is important for the public servant is to absent oneself from any partisan discussions and avoid exposure to raw politics.”
He said the public service mission was not to shape governments to suit public servants’ personal preferences or outlook; if this didn’t suit, then “we should resign our positions as public servants and run for office ourselves”. Sound advice.
And last November, he told the institute he would need to “tread very carefully so as to avoid the appearance of expressing any view whatsoever on the conduct of politics”.
But despite former Home Affairs minister and current Opposition Leader Peter Dutton saying he had always “conducted himself in a thoroughly professional way in my dealings with him”, Pezzullo’s own messages appear to show he was not following his own counsel.
The current government must deal with both this specific scandal and the broader questions it raises about the state of the public service. Australians are entitled to an explanation as to how this behaviour was able to take place from someone in such a prominent and influential position, seemingly unchecked, over a long period.
They also deserve an assurance that action will be taken to prevent such behaviour in the future. The government should explain its plans to prevent the public service from being further politicised. Meaningful answers won’t come immediately, but they should come soon.
Australians have the right to demand much higher standards of the people who run our institutions than have been on display in the Pezzullo scandal.
As for Pezzullo, he should take his own advice.
Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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