Toy soldiers

The word most used to describe Mike Pezzullo is “obsessive”. He has the cunning of a stoat. He loves military history and regards himself a student of war. As a child, he imagined his toys fighting.

Pezzullo has a sour view of the world. His faith splits people into good and evil. He loathes scrutiny. Colleagues find him easy to dislike.

For a time, it was his habit to telephone politicians and upbraid them for criticising his department. At least once, his minister had to warn him about overstepping.

In other moments he would send senators strange, operatic notes: “How best to answer another’s scorn? Answer according to the scorn, and one risks behaving like the other. Do not answer the scorn, and one risks allowing the other to be wise in their own eyes.”

Leaked messages now show years of back channel intervention in politics. He craved laws to control the press. He desperately sought to keep immigration and security a portfolio of the right. He liked Peter Dutton and dreamt of Scott Morrison.

Pezzullo is obsessed with conflict but at the highest levels of his career he has made war only with refugees. He is an expression of one of the great lies of Australian politics, the one that mistakes brutality for competence.

While he was in charge, the worst excesses of Australia’s immigration policy were committed. It was on his desk that the reports of child abuse and suicide were left unread. He dressed the public servants as soldiers and sent them out on the streets. He bent the language and defended the cruelty.

“There is no compassion in giving people false hope,” he once said. “All that can be done is being done.” For the people being tortured in island camps, he talked about “the quiet persuasion of those not owed protection to go home”.

Pezzullo was in Kim Beazley’s office when Labor proposed an armed coastguard. The idea of a Department of Home Affairs has been his for decades. He has spent longer than anyone building the poisonous edifice of border protection.

To read his text messages is to see the shape of his ambition. It is all gristle and transaction. He ran the ugliest part of Australia’s bureaucracy without a second thought, just the hope that his advice would go to Dutton or Morrison or Angus Taylor or Alan Tudge.

It is unlikely Pezzullo will return to the public service. He has been stood aside pending an investigation into his conduct. His desk has been cleared out. Whatever war histories he might have had on his shelves have been put into boxes and taken home.

A reasonable person could hope that this is the end of a sorry chapter in Australian history, the militarisation of our borders by a man who never got to run Defence. Looking at it now, it is clear he never stopped lining up toy soldiers.

Labor has an opportunity for a fresh start, for a department that sees people seeking asylum not as enemies but as their first priority. We can only hope they take it. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Toy soldiers".

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