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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Mike Pezzullo, one of Canberra’s most powerful and certainly most controversial public servants, cannot survive the revelation of the trove of text messages showing him blatantly inserting himself into the political process.

Pezzullo, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, has been stood aside while his extraordinary behaviour, exposed by Nine Entertainment, is scrutinised by a former public service commissioner, Lynelle Briggs. But the end of the story is predictable.

In the tsunami of encrypted texts, running over five years and sent to Scott Briggs (no relation to Lynelle Briggs), a Liberal insider and confidant of prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, Pezzullo repeatedly lobbied for his departmental interests and his views.

He dissed ministers in the way of these interests or those (and other people) he didn’t rate. He used Briggs to seek leverage with the then PMs, asking for his opinions to be passed on. Briggs was happy to comply.

Nine says it learned of the messages “via a third party who obtained lawful access to them”.

Pezzullo is a one-off in the today’s public service. He can perhaps be partly understood by referring back to the so-called bureaucratic “mandarins” of decades ago. They ran their departments with iron grips, and in some cases were, or tried to be, as powerful as ministers, or more so. They gave no quarter in bureaucratic battles.

The mandarins were “players”. Pezzullo is a “player”.

He’s tough and polarising, with supporters and bitter enemies. Critics have long questioned his judgement. On security matters, he’s the hawks’ hawk. While at first blush his texts appear highly partisan, that is too simplistic an interpretation. He fights bureaucratic and policy/ideological battles, rather than being directly party-political.

His addiction to texting is certainly bipartisan. Within the Albanese government they joke about it starting first thing in the morning and running well into the night.

As a public servant, Pezzullo has served both sides of politics. When in the defence department, he was lead author of the Rudd government’s 2009 defence white paper, which raised the hackles of China. Earlier, he was a senior staffer to Kim Beazley when Beazley was opposition leader. His primary interest is defence – he would have liked nothing better than to head the defence department.

When Anthony Albanese won government, some in Labor wanted Pezzullo gone. He survived not least because the new home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, in charge of this huge, sprawling empire, needed an experienced hand.

In some ways, Pezzullo is a stickler for process – as we saw when Morrison was trying to make political use of a boat headed for Australia on election day – which makes these texts all the more shocking. But he portrayed himself as acting in broader interests, telling Briggs at one point during the 2018 battle over the prime ministership, “I say that from a policy perspective and not from a Liberal leadership perspective”.

Pezzullo lobbied relentlessly for the creation of the home affairs “super” department, which Turnbull set up in December 2017 to placate the ambitious Peter Dutton.

Those who resisted its establishment, particularly then attorney-general George Brandis, became Pezzullo’s targets. He accused Brandis of “lawyering” public servants “into a state of befuddlement”.

Pezzullo is particularly fond of military imagery. During the struggle to get home affairs up, he texted Briggs, “I am running deep and silent. Won’t come up to periscope depth for a while”. In another message he said the attorney-general’s department needed to be “put to the sword” on a matter, then “we can break out of the Normandy beachhead”. (In a 2021 Anzac Day message to staff Pezzullo caused a public ruckus when he wrote of “the drums of war” beating.)

Moderates were an all-round worry in the Pezzullo texts. Marise Payne, in the defence portfolio, was “completely ineffectual”, “a problem” and “doesn’t have a clear view of the national interest”. Julie Bishop received short shrift; he “almost had a heart attack” when she put her hand up as a candidate in the 2018 upheaval. He was sarcastically relieved when Briggs assured him she had few numbers.

In that battle, in which Dutton (Pezzullo’s minister) challenged Turnbull and Morrison ultimately emerged as prime minister, Pezzullo was concerned about who would end up his minister.

“You need a right winger in there – people smugglers will be watching”, he texted Briggs.

“Any suggestion of a moderate going in would be potentially lethal viz” for Operation Sovereign Borders, he said.

Pezzullo had little time for the head of the prime minister’s department, Martin Parkinson: he was not up to the job and “entirely lacking in self awareness”. In one of those nice ironies of politics, Parkinson was commissioned by the Labor government to lead O’Neil’s migration review.

Pezzullo, whose tug-of-war appearances at Senate estimates hearings are often compulsory viewing, complained to Briggs in 2020, after enduring a particularly long session, that the hearings were “actually a concern for our democracy”. But he boasted that “in batting terms we are 0-400”.

Free speech came well behind security in Pezzullo’s priorities. After an awkward story by reporter Annika Smethurst, who was subjected to a police raid, Pezzullo reportedly argued for a revival of the D-notice system, under which editors were requested not to publish certain information affecting defence or national security. It didn’t happen.

Pezzullo in one text asked Briggs, “Please keep our conversations confidential. Tricky tight rope for me”. Tricky indeed. The player obsessed by security has been undone by some unidentified power play that has left him totally exposed.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. View from The Hill: ‘Player’ Mike Pezzullo undone by power play –