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Despite bellicose Anzac Day remarks, Mike Pezzullo may not head to Defence, but could replace Phil Gaetjens. By Karen Middleton.

‘Visceral’ response to Pezzullo in Defence

Home Affairs Department secretary Mike Pezzullo looks set to be denied his dream job in Defence and is now in the mix for promotion to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C).

While neither job is vacant, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) secretary Frances Adamson’s scheduled June retirement has long been expected to set off a series of moves, deemed likely to include Pezzullo becoming Defence secretary.

Instead, The Saturday Paper understands Pezzullo is now a potential candidate to lead the PM&C when incumbent Phil Gaetjens retires. Gaetjens took the job on condition of retiring about the time of the next election. His departure may come as soon as this year.

The government’s disinclination to move Pezzullo to Defence preceded his controversial Anzac Day message to staff, which warned that the “drums of war” are beating – seen as a reference to the most present regional danger, possible conflict with China over Taiwan.

Having shifted Minister Peter Dutton from Home Affairs to Defence, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is understood to have been reluctant to also move the departmental secretary across. Despite public assumptions, Dutton was not advocating it.

The military leadership was also not keen on Pezzullo leading their department.

One insider describes Defence’s response to their hawkish former deputy secretary as “visceral”.

The government will argue Pezzullo remains in Home Affairs to help new minister Karen Andrews transition into what is a complicated national security mega-portfolio.

Morrison faces a series of job decisions prompted by the impending departures of Adamson, touted to become South Australian governor, and Gaetjens, who has previously been the prime minister’s chief of staff.

Current Defence secretary Greg Moriarty – a former ambassador to Iran and Indonesia who was national security adviser to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – had been expected to take on the top job at DFAT but is known to prefer Defence.

Along with Pezzullo, Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell is the subject of PM&C speculation.

Campbell worked with Morrison when he was in the Social Services portfolio and is
a major-general in the Army Reserve.

Pezzullo is a decorated bureaucrat whose expertise is in security. He worked for Kim Beazley when Beazley was Labor leader and is highly regarded by the current government. However, he has no experience in the central agencies – PM&C, Treasury or Finance.

A forceful and sometimes divisive official, Pezzullo occasionally ranges publicly into the wider defence domain.

His two previous Anzac messages drew on history, but this year’s was different – and more contentious – because it looked to the future. His comments attracted international attention.

He quoted two historical United States military figures, generals Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, to frame observations on the danger of pending conflict and the need to prepare.

Far from an application for the Defence job, the Anzac remarks represent a message whose tone and content could have come only from outside the department.

Pezzullo provided Home Affairs Minister Andrews with an advance copy. Coming after DFAT secretary Adamson more directly rebuked China in a recent speech – and following Dutton’s comment last weekend that war with China over Taiwan could not be ruled out – Pezzullo’s message appears to suit the government.

“All of our objectives here through the activities of our Defence forces are designed to pursue peace,” Prime Minister Morrison said when first asked about it.

But in announcing upgrades to military bases this week, Morrison stepped up his own language.

“That is the path that we are pursuing,” he said. “But to do that, in a region as uncertain as this, you need to ensure that you have the defence capability that enables you to protect and defend Australia’s interests in that region.”

Pezzullo had warned that the “drums of war” should not be ignored, as they were initially in the 1930s.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Australia was “obsessed with fanning confrontation and hyping up the threat of war”.

At a forum on Wednesday, Pezzullo explained his remarks as “a very personal lament for those who have fallen in the past”.

“Surely on Anzac Day of all days we should be, if nothing else, conscious of their sacrifice and just grappling with this challenge of constantly seeking to find peace,” he said. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Pezzullo’s next step".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.