Paul Bongiorno
The legacies of Daniel Andrews and Mike Pezzullo

The departure of one powerful man and the sidelining of another has accentuated the profound influence both have had in shaping the direction of the nation. Their legacies are now both a challenge and an opportunity for Anthony Albanese to learn from and refine.

This is a big statement, I know, but Victoria’s longest serving Labor premier, Daniel Andrews, and the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, are extraordinary personalities who understood the exercise of power and had the ruthless ambition to wield it. One left at a time of his own choosing, the other authored his own undoing.

The early resignation of Andrews was a surprise only in its timing. The prime minister was expecting it before the next state election, due in 2026, but not before the first year of a new term had expired. The premier rang his old Canberra flatmate to tell him of his decision early on Tuesday morning. The formal announcement came as Albanese was addressing the National Disaster Preparedness Summit.

The coincidence may have suited the narrative the Liberals have been running against the two Labor leaders, particularly over the limited federal inquiry into the Covid-19 lockdowns, but it’s not the way Albanese sees it.

Leaving the summit, the prime minister was effusive in his acknowledgement of Andrews as “a man of great conviction, enormous compassion and a fierce determination to make a difference”. Albanese said that during the pandemic the premier did “what he believed was absolutely right to keep Victorians safe”. He said he did this by “not making easy decisions” but by “making difficult decisions”.

Many, and not just Labor’s political opponents, believe those decisions deserve the forensic scrutiny of a royal commission. It would certainly suit the federal opposition if such an inquiry generated headlines showing the premier and his health experts overreached – thus helping to undermine Labor’s dominance at the state and federal levels in Victoria.

But Canberra can’t establish a royal commission into “actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments” without those governments being willing to issue letters patent for such coercive powers to be exercised in their jurisdictions. None have the appetite for it, arguing, as Albanese does, that inquiries have already been held and the one he has set up is resourced to probe the intersection of federal and state responsibilities and what can be learnt to be better prepared next time.

Still, it leaves the prime minister and the premiers vulnerable to the attacks coming from Peter Dutton that Albanese is running a “protection racket” for his Labor mates. Never mind that during the pandemic there were three Liberal state governments and the federal Coalition government, and since then, two Labor governments – Victoria and Queensland – were returned in landslide election wins.

Andrews assumed national status in the earlier days of the pandemic, when he played a leading role in reshaping and in many ways recovering the prerogatives of the states as enshrined in the Constitution.

Like the other premiers, he was shocked when then prime minister Scott Morrison came to the newly established national cabinet meetings with no proposals on quarantine beyond the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory. The solution of using hotels proved to be scarcely fit for purpose and is one area that will be scrutinised.

Andrews was a polarising figure but the extent of it, as far as the voters were concerned, was largely a myth generated by the state’s conservative media. The frustration of ineffectual and divided conservatives proved to be a noisy rump. The “Dictator Dan” tag, easily applied to Andrews’ forceful pandemic warnings and dour persona, didn’t resonate in the way Sky News’s after dark commentators were hoping.

The attacks were undermined by the failure of the Liberal alternative to establish its credibility. This week, Albanese said “people who would have been mainstream in the Victorian Liberal tradition of moderates simply can’t recognise what the Liberal Party in Victoria looks like today”.

The domination of right-wing elements, particularly those identified with the religious right, will make it much harder for state Liberal leader John Pesutto to drag his party to the more-electable centre.

At the federal level, Dutton is not even trying. According to party sources, the targeting of Liberal MPs over their preselections for supporting the “Yes” campaign in the referendum, as reported in The Saturday Paper recently, is happening with a vengeance in the state. It goes a long way towards explaining Pesutto’s own backtracking on the referendum.

Just as dramatic as the Andrews resignation, and certainly as consequential for the nation, is the standing-aside on Monday of the federal public service’s most controversial and arguably most powerful departmental secretary, Mike Pezzullo.

The Department of Home Affairs, which he leads, is, in fact, his creation – a giant bringing together of intelligence, immigration and border security. How he managed to achieve an ambition harboured since he worked for then opposition leader Kim Beazley almost three decades ago has been starkly revealed in hundreds of text messages, sent over five years between himself and Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs.

The irony of a man obsessed with security and encryption being brought undone by his imprudent, obsessive use of WhatsApp in his attempts to reshape governments is testimony to a hubris familiar to those who have worked with him over the years.

Nine Entertainment broke the story on Sunday night television and followed up with more revelations during the week in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. It was summed up as Pezzullo spending years “using a political back channel” to prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison “to undermine political and public service enemies, to promote the careers of conservative politicians he considered allies”. He is accused of using this same channel to lobby for draconian laws against the press and to target certain journalists.

One former public servant, who worked alongside the meticulous Pezzullo, described him as “a Nazi”: he takes no prisoners, brooks no questioning and keeps everyone under the thumb. It elucidates why an examination of the 2022 Australian Public Service employee census results showed his department scored lower than any other agency for staff satisfaction, including engagement and wellbeing.

The leaked texts bolster another former colleague’s view that Pezzullo saw himself as smarter than and above the elected government. But in playing to the predispositions of military hawks like himself, he crossed the line into party political power plays: a clear breach of the Public Service Act – bad enough in casual conversation, fatal when documented over time as a pattern of behaviour.

Adding to the fix Pezzullo is now in are further questions over tender processes involving his contact, Scott Briggs, and the Department of Home Affairs. The Saturday Paper is not suggesting any illegality.

Albanese says he sees the inquiry into the Pezzullo text revelations as “urgent”. According to seasoned public servants in Canberra, once it establishes the texts are genuine, Pezzullo’s brilliant career will be over.

Just how journalists got hold of the material has led to some wild speculation, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion they got into the hands of the media by someone either with a score to settle or who wanted to curb the Department of Home Affairs’ profile as an ideologically driven outfit indifferent to concerns for human rights or Australia’s obligations under the various United Nations conventions we have signed.

The record is hard to ignore. Apart from the dubious legality of the still-secretive Operation Sovereign Borders, there have been documented scandals over the awarding of contracts to offshore detention operators and bribery allegations to Pacific politicians. The debacle over the Cape-class patrol boats and the loss of control of our borders at our major airports, thanks to an organised illegal migrant scheme, is also of note. Then there was the enormous backlog of visa applications left unaddressed until the change of government.

Affording Pezzullo cover until now was the unwillingness of the Albanese government to send any signals it would consider dismantling the border protection apparatus its predecessors had put in place.

While there was admiration across parliament for Pezzullo’s intelligence and work ethic, these revelations mean the Dutton opposition has been robbed of any political potency in attacking Albanese if the prime minister now removes the Home Affairs Department secretary. Whether it will mean any softening of policy is by no means guaranteed.

Besides, the government has a ready-made replacement in associate secretary Stephanie Foster. Foster has a long pedigree in the departments of defence and prime minister and cabinet, and other senior departmental roles. She is often referred to as “the winker” for her wink in the direction of then finance minister Simon Birmingham at a Senate estimates hearing in 2021. It came after she batted away intense questioning from a Labor senator as to why she, and not her boss, Phil Gaetjens, was fronting the hearing. The issue was the window-dressing provided by the Gaetjens inquiry into who knew what about the Brittany Higgins allegations.

One thing seems certain: there will be no tolerance for anyone else trying to resurrect, as Pezzullo did, the dominance of the mandarins of old in the public service.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "The dire Briggs personality test".

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