How did Mike Pezzullo become Australia’s most powerful bureaucrat?
The home affairs secretary is seen as a Dutton loyalist; he’s also been a Labor staffer and is considered a fiercely independent mandarin. So who’s the real Mike?
In June 1999, the federal Labor leader, Kim Beazley, copped a lemon meringue pie to the face during a public event in Melbourne. Beazley laughed it off. But Mike Pezzullo, now head of the home affairs department, then on the Labor leader’s political staff, didn’t see the humour. Worried about his boss’s personal safety, he took off after the assailant and performed a citizen’s arrest.
Colleagues from the time recount the citizen’s arrest story as illustrative of the Pezzullo personality: a person inclined to taking charge, and more inclined to seek forgiveness than permission. They also recall Beazley sending another member of staff after Pezzullo to ensure any ad hoc security intervention played out without incident.
Pezzullo was always visible as a staffer, which is unusual in Canberra’s backroom culture, where advisers, Peta Credlin excepted, are inclined to be small targets. He was a big personality – combative, ambitious and relentless – controversially something of an enforcer and cat herder with members of the caucus, diligently pursuing the interests of his genial political boss. It was a quality that wasn’t universally appreciated.
As one of Australia’s most powerful public servants, Pezzullo has maintained all those qualities, particularly visibility and relentlessness, which makes him a stand-out figure in the risk-averse federal bureaucracy of 2019.
John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, sees Pezzullo as a genuine throwback: an old-school, sharp-elbowed, empire-building Canberra mandarin with a Manichean view of the world who would have been at home roaming the corridors of Old Parliament House in the post-war period; a breed of bureaucrat generally thought to be extinct.
Blaxland compares Pezzullo’s ambition to create the controversial home affairs apparatus – a concept he’s pursued doggedly since at least 2001 – to Arthur Tange’s amalgamation of the Australian defence apparatus in the 1970s, a revolution for that period, and a controversial one.
“He’s had Sir Arthur in his mind, I think, and he’s been very persuasive,” Blaxland, a critic of the home affairs structure, says. “Very few people have thought about home affairs as much as Mike has, so his arguments are hard to counter. He’s been able to persuade successive prime ministers and ministers that this structure is the way forward.”
Some bureaucratic colleagues disapprove of Pezzullo’s high profile. One former department head who declines to be named says senior public servants shouldn’t cultivate their own brands.
“I think a secretary should do everything he can to maintain a low profile and not cultivate a separate public persona,” the official says. He argues that the tenor of Pezzullo’s speeches and essays tend to present views as personally held, rather than the agenda of the government. His at-times combative approach to Senate estimates also separates him from contemporary custom and practice. “I always thought, no matter what I thought of the senator or the question, you behave as a very humble public servant.”
The former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans, who brought Pezzullo into his political office from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet after the 1993 election, says his former adviser is a formidable talent and a “fiercely committed public servant and fiercely loyal to the government of the day”.
Evans persists with “fierce” in his descriptions. Pezzullo, he says, has always been a “fierce warrior” for the home affairs apparatus he now heads. He says Pezzullo is a hawk on defence issues (“more so than me”), but is also “principled on questions of liberty”. Evans says Pezzullo is a much more complex character than the standard caricature that paints him as a “Dutton warrior” – a gung-ho spear-carrier for his portfolio minister, Peter Dutton. Pezzullo’s commitment, Evans insists, is to ideas and public service, not to partisan intrigues and power plays.
Simon Crean, who also knows Pezzullo well from his time in the parliament, says the home affairs chief was “a valuable resource for us” because he was always meticulous and thorough during internal discussions about policy and political strategy in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Mike came with a considered point of view, and he’d hammer it,” Crean recalls. “Look, he’s a control freak – but in that job, home affairs, you need to be”.