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”.

People who know Pezzullo well describe a tough-minded workaholic, a pushy patriot long obsessed with defence and security issues. Some say he can be impulsive, and quick to wade in to scraps. He is also, according to colleagues, very attentive to his reputation, which would be a taxing preoccupation at this historical juncture. Intra-day politics is powered with conflict, and public discourse is replete with ad hominem attacks. Abuse has few limits in the roiling social media age. Being attentive to slights on your reputation is a hobby that could easily lead a bureaucrat into trouble.

The home affairs chief invited a fresh round of public controversy this week by getting on the phone to a cross bench senator, Rex Patrick. The general atmosphere was heightened in the wake of two police raids contentious enough to have attracted international scrutiny about Australia’s commitment, or more pertinently, its lack of commitment, to a free press.

Australia’s creeping security state, and the lack of countervailing protections for expression and public interest disclosure, loomed large in the post-raid analysis, with open debate about whether journalism had been criminalised in the rush to beef up the power of agencies to combat security threats. For once, Australia’s squabbling media companies were on the same page and ready to rumble.

Pezzullo took issue with media comments Patrick made about him in connection to the raids on News Corp and ABC journalists. Patrick had been one of the fiercest critics of the raids, including suggesting there had been a double standard, with leaks embarrassing to the government pursued more vigorously than others. He contended Pezzullo and Dutton “clearly hate media scrutiny”. Pezzullo objected to the commentary, according to Patrick’s account of the conversation.

“He took the view that while I was in my rights as a senator to comment about and indeed criticise his minister, Peter Dutton, I should refrain from commentary about him, the secretary of home affairs,”

Patrick used his Facebook account of the conversation to wonder whether Pezzullo’s true intent had been intimidation. Patrick has been a voluble critic not only of the police raids but also of the home affairs apparatus.

“A phone call from the chief bureaucrat overseeing a national security juggernaut, effectively a ministry of state security, that now includes the national police force, the domestic security agency, the border control agency and a striking array of covert investigative and surveillance capabilities – a phone call from the home affairs boss is not quite the same as call from the secretary of veteran’s affairs or the health department,” he noted.

Pezzullo told the ABC shortly after the story broke that the idea his true intent was intimidatory was bunkum. He said he had “no view and nor should I express a view on how senator Patrick conducts himself on the issues that he chooses to pursue as a senator. My sole request made to him by telephone was to ask that he reflect on his adverse references to my purported view of media scrutiny. His comments were unfounded and not able to be responded to by me in the media as quite properly I lack the public platform that he has, and uses.”

Colleagues see the approach to Patrick as more naïve than malicious, although it was clearly ill-considered. Richard Mulgan, an expert on public sector ethics at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, says Pezzullo thinks deeply about public sector practice and tradition. This thinking is arrayed through his wide-ranging public speeches and essays. In a recent speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Pezzullo outlined his vision of the role of public servants. The public service was a creature of traditional Westminster principles, Pezzullo said, an apolitical body, there to support and respect democratically elected ministers, while offering up its extensive policy and strategic experience. Mulgan says it’s a vision that should be applauded.

But he worries how that thinking fits with the recent controversy involving Patrick. Mulgan’s concerns are not about political neutrality. Rather, he worries Pezzullo’s intervention could be seen as interfering in Senate estimates, where Patrick is a regular interrogator of senior public servants.

“I think the main criticism here would be that the Senate committees are one of the few places where the public service is scrutinised and held to account, particularly senior public servants themselves, who are otherwise faceless, pretty well,” Mulgan says. “It’s impolite, or a breach of conventional manner, to berate somebody to whom you are expected to give account. So he’s obviously behaving in a way which would not be countenanced by almost any of his other peers.”

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, was clearly not amused with the overreach. Morrison told journalists he was “concerned” about the exchange. Morrison directed Dutton to counsel his departmental head. Dutton proceeded with the counselling, and then gave Pezzullo public cover by rounding publicly on Patrick, arguing the cross-bencher was “a person of the sort of character who would seek to misrepresent the secretary’s words”.

But while preserving the dignity of his secretary, and adopting his usual posture of attack being the best form of defence, Dutton used two specific words of rebuke that would be easily understood by any bureaucrat from the lowly graduate recruits to the occupants of the senior executive floor. It was a little harbinger of professional mortality, a reminder that no one, however useful, is invincible.

The home affairs construct is controversial within Canberra’s security community. The proposal to create the super-department was also controversial within the Turnbull government. George Brandis, Turnbull’s attorney general, reportedly used a farewell speech at Asio before departing for his diplomatic posting to London to raise concerns about the power and scope of the new home affairs apparatus.

The all-consuming expansion of the Dutton/Pezzullo agency has caused resentment in some of Australia’s most powerful agencies. Most notable among the resentments is the Australian Federal Police, which was subsumed into home affairs in late 2017. Before the federal election, the Australian Federal Police Association campaigned to have the AFP excised from home affairs, saying the structure was putting its independence and integrity at risk. The situation, the AFPA warned, was untenable.

“It’s an embarrassing situation,” AFPA president Angela Smith told Guardian Australia in March. “We look the least independent police force in Australia – surely the other police forces are laughing at us.”

Turnbull agreed to establish the home affairs bureaucracy from a position of political weakness. Dutton, the government’s most powerful conservative, and then a key member of the prime minister’s Praetorian guard, wanted his mega-department, and it would have been almost impossible in the circumstances for Turnbull to decline that ambition. Realpolitik, as much as operational need, drove the on-balance decision to say yes.

While home affairs is Dutton’s ambition made bureaucratic flesh, insiders insist it was Pezzullo who pitched it as he moved through public service positions after leaving the world of political staffing. This is hardly surprising. Pezzullo pitched it first to Beazley, who agreed to create a home affairs portfolio, and a coastguard. It is unquestionably his baby.

Beazley announced the proposed overhaul in October 2001. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Beazley said Labor would implement a “powerful, Cabinet-level ministry of home affairs” which would take in law enforcement, including the AFP and the National Crime Authority, counter terrorism, coastal surveillance, including the new coastguard, aviation security, security intelligence, including Asio, homeland security, including the federal protection service, telecommunications interception, responsibility for the protection of national information infrastructure, the customs service and national disaster response.

The language is familiar. The proposed ministry, Beazley said, would provide a “powerful and coordinated focal point for strengthening Australia’s national security and fighting global terrorism”. It would “guarantee” enhanced cooperation between police and intelligence services and defence. “The home affairs ministry will be the most powerful and focused peacetime ministerial arrangement for coordinating Australia’s domestic security in our history,” Beazley said. “Its time has come and the times demand it.”

Its time wouldn’t actually come until the tail end of the Turnbull government, and Blaxland is one of a number of experts who has reservations about whether the apparatus is a good idea. The super-department remains contentious in bureaucratic circles. There are queries about the quality of the departmental culture and debate about whether the problems are systemic or a function of personalities.

Blaxland says there are valid arguments that consolidating various law enforcement functions creates operational efficiencies, but he’s concerned about the concentration of power, both because of the “optics” – particularly bad with the recent example of the police raids – and because the structure doesn’t promote contestability of advice.

“Executives in home affairs are conscientious and honourable people, but they are in a construct that encourages conformity,” the ANU expert says. He says if home affairs is now part of the Canberra architecture, and his view is it’s now not really viable to pull it apart, then there needs to be mechanisms to guard against the risks. A separate statutory authority, a national security adviser, could provide contestable advice, and there needs to be effective oversight.

Blaxland has a new paper coming out shortly that traverses the coexistent problems of great power contestation, environmental catastrophe, and disorder in governance on an unprecedented scale. These are real threats and contemporary challenges, he says, that generate a dark space both intellectually and operationally.

“That dark space consumes Mike’s mind,” he says. “It’s not a bad thing that someone does this thinking because this is important and necessary work.” But he says it’s important in the defence against the forces of darkness that sunlight is also permitted. “My concern is to ensure Australia’s security architecture doesn’t corrode,” he says.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *