Mike Pezzullo has packed up his desk. When the controversial secretary of the Department of Home Affairs stood aside on Monday and left the building, he took his personal effects with him. He did not go voluntarily – minister Clare O’Neil had to request it – and as the week ended he had not offered his resignation. Still, few in politics or the bureaucracy expect him to be back.
According to Nine newspapers, Pezzullo exchanged hundreds of politically charged encrypted messages with Liberal Party operative Scott Briggs. The messages ran over at least five years, allegedly denigrating colleagues and ministers and seeking to influence ministerial appointments. The revelations have prompted a common response among interested observers: “Shocked, but not surprised.”
A government-ordered inquiry established through the Public Service Commission is now seeking to verify the voluminous exchanges, which involved multiple encrypted communication platforms. The messages suggest Pezzullo used his seemingly extensive and regular private contact with Briggs as a back channel to two Liberal prime ministers, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, pressing agendas for his department, for national security policy and, it has been alleged, for his own career.
The big question now ricocheting through the political establishment is less about how a senior bureaucrat who has preached forcefully about public service neutrality could commit such things to writing – although there is that – than how the messages came to be leaked, why, and why now.
First published on Sunday night, the messages portray a frank, mutually congratulatory and trusting relationship between two influential men, with that trust now spectacularly breached via persons unknown.
According to Nine, Pezzullo sought out Scott Briggs in 2016 and used their contact to press his case on the shape of the national security apparatus and to suggest the best and worst individuals within government for protecting and expanding it. This included interventionist observations during his then minister Peter Dutton’s ultimately unsuccessful leadership challenge in 2018, which saw Turnbull ousted and Morrison installed instead.
The messages appear to champion conservative Liberals and mock some moderates. “You need a right-winger in there,” Pezzullo allegedly wrote on who might become Home Affairs minister when the leadership contest was resolved. “People smugglers will be watching. Please feed that in.”
The prospect of then foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop becoming prime minister is said to have almost given Pezzullo “a heart attack”.
He is reported to have boasted of his own efforts to make press freedom a “dead duck” in the wake of police raids on journalists who had reported leaked details of his plans for the Australian Signals Directorate and on war crimes allegations against Australian special forces soldiers.
He allegedly badmouthed the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and its then secretary, Martin Parkinson, as incompetent and insecure and suggested himself as a replacement.
The messages indicate Pezzullo called then defence minister Marise Payne “completely ineffectual” and “a problem”, with Briggs observing that Turnbull would have political difficulty demoting a woman. The bureaucrat also said the then defence industry minister, Christopher Pyne, should be sacked.
The Saturday Paper contacted some of those eviscerated in the published exchanges. Most declined to comment. They included former defence minister Christopher Pyne, who said he was on a family holiday in Egypt. “I don’t care about ancient texts unless they are on papyrus,” he replied.
Mike Pezzullo is an unconventional bureaucrat and, until this week, was a political survivor. Having served both Labor and Coalition governments, he climbed through the ranks in the departments of defence and prime minister and cabinet. An adviser to then foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans in the Hawke and Keating years, he became deputy chief of staff to then opposition leader Kim Beazley before rejoining defence – a department he has long wanted to run – in 2002 and then becoming a deputy secretary.
In 2014, prime minister Tony Abbott catapulted him into immigration and border protection as secretary under minister Scott Morrison, before prime minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed him to head the monolithic domestic-security hub, Home Affairs, upon its creation in 2017.
A social conservative and practising Christian, Pezzullo has riled some within his department with his dress code directions and provocative speeches in which he quotes literature, history and popular culture and once opined that the “drums of war” were beating. Home Affairs rated lowest of all federal departments in the 2022 public service staff satisfaction survey, with slightly more than half of its surveyed staff declining to recommend working there.
Malcolm Turnbull outlined his own mixed views of Pezzullo in his 2020 memoir, A Bigger Picture. “I have never known anyone in the Australian Public Service who is more disliked by his senior colleagues than Pezzullo; and yet, in the same breath, his critics acknowledge that he is hard working and gets things done,” Turnbull wrote. “I found him to give well-considered professional advice.”
Turnbull went on to describe the “invidious choice” he faced in deciding to create the new mega-department of Home Affairs – modelled on the British version but expressly not recommended in the 2017 independent review of intelligence infrastructure.
“He was definitely well equipped to bring the new super department together and he believed in the concept,” Turnbull wrote. On the other hand, he added, bringing together agencies led by “very capable people” under his stewardship would not be easy given “his poor interpersonal skills”.
The other key figure in this story, Scott Briggs, is a lobbyist and businessman. He was a confidant and political lieutenant to former prime minister Scott Morrison and also worked closely with Turnbull, including managing the preselection campaign that saw him oust then sitting Liberal member Peter King to enter parliament in the electorate of Wentworth.
Briggs was a key member of Australian Visa Processing, a consortium that bid for a billion-dollar Home Affairs contract to privatise the Australian visa system. No contract was awarded and Briggs was reported to have exited the group in February of 2020, a month before the project was abandoned.
According to Nine, there is no discussion of the visa-processing contract in the messages between Briggs and Pezzullo, which its journalists say were obtained “via a third party who obtained lawful access to them”.
This careful reference to lawful access is prompting widespread speculation about the possible source. Plainly it was not Pezzullo, who is said to have been blindsided by the leak. Some wonder if the messages were the product of an investigation or obtained through the discovery process in a legal proceeding. However, nobody has identified any proceeding involving Briggs that might have elicited such a specific set of communications, across at least two encrypted apps. An unauthorised leak from inside an investigation arguably does not fit the definition of “lawful access”, at least not for public distribution.
Those interviewed for Nine’s story, which was also broadcast on 60 Minutes, were shown screenshots of actual messages on a phone. Messages obtained through court proceedings tend to be produced in the form of a document containing transcriptions.
There is no suggestion of corruption or illegality in the messages between Pezzullo and Briggs, as Nine has reported them. However, Pezzullo’s alleged engagement potentially breaches the Public Service Code of Conduct, which precludes public servants from partisan behaviour. Former public service commissioner Lynelle Briggs – no relation to Scott Briggs – has been appointed to investigate.
Pezzullo’s fate now rests on her findings. Within government and beyond there is speculation that once the messages are confirmed as legitimate, he may be forced to resign or be sacked.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday that while he saw it as “an urgent matter”, he would await the inquiry’s findings.
“You have an independent inquiry so that you hear from the inquiry, not so that you pre-empt it,” he said. “My government is an orderly government that sets up structures that are appropriate and then responds to it.”
In opposition, Labor believed Pezzullo was too close to the Coalition government, especially former Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, who defended the bureaucrat this week as having served the Commonwealth faithfully.
“If the prime minister doesn’t have confidence in Mr Pezzullo, he should say so,” Dutton said.
Some in the new government wanted Pezzullo removed as soon as they took office. Albanese was adamant there would be no instant retribution against bureaucrats who had served his predecessor, although some have since been eased out.
Instead, on taking office, the government appointed former prime minister’s department deputy secretary Stephanie Foster to a specially created “associate secretary” position in Home Affairs, below Pezzullo but above his deputies.
Foster had also been controversial, as the bureaucrat Morrison assigned regularly to deal with politically difficult issues. She is now acting secretary in Pezzullo’s absence.
Pezzullo declined to comment to The Saturday Paper this week. In a written statement provided to Nine and published on the 60 Minutes website, Pezzullo said: “The Department of Home Affairs has long standing policies in place to address Conflicts of Interest, which apply to all employees, including the Secretary. The Department is committed to continued transparency and accountability in all its endeavours. Any allegations, accompanied by any relevant evidence, should be referred to the appropriate authorities.”
On Thursday, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reported that other documents, including some obtained under freedom of information laws, showed Pezzullo had declared his friendships with both Briggs and with former Labor minister Stephen Conroy – also part of the consortium – to probity advisers overseeing the visa-processing tender process. Nine reported that he did not disclose his alleged attempts, via Briggs, to exert political influence.
The newspapers reported that the documents and separate leaked correspondence showed Pezzullo also facilitated access to a senior official for British American Tobacco at the request of a lobbyist friend, and that he had a private meeting with the then head of professional services company PwC, Tom Seymour, about plans to privatise the quarantine system, after a lobbyist’s approach.
The newspapers are not alleging Pezzullo received any financial benefit. Pezzullo did not respond to renewed requests for comment.
Some are speculating privately that sources close to Briggs may have leaked the messages to damage Pezzullo, whose contract expires next year, although this cannot be verified. The Saturday Paper’s attempts to contact Briggs were unsuccessful.
The businessman and Liberal operative told Nine: “I can confirm that I have had communications with Mike Pezzullo over a long period of time, commencing in 2016 and continuing through to the present. The nature of those communications were always private matters. The matters raised never related to any procurement and I made sure that my relationship with Pezzullo was always formally disclosed as required. I also complied with any direction received from DHA [Department of Home Affairs] in relation to those communications.”
Notwithstanding his apparently active support for the Coalition’s border protection policies, Pezzullo’s relationship with Morrison and his colleagues broke down on election day last year, after he refused to issue a public statement revealing mid-operation that an asylum seeker boat had been intercepted. Instead, someone tipped off a journalist, prompting a question to Morrison at a news conference, allowing him to confirm the events publicly – despite having declined for many years to answer questions about “on-water matters”.
The Liberal Party then sent a series of election-day text messages to voters in marginal seats, highlighting the boat interception. In a report on the sequence of events ordered by the new government, Pezzullo said ministers had pressured Australian Border Force officials to issue a statement but he had refused.
Along with Pezzullo, but separately, the Department of Home Affairs is now also under review through a scheduled examination of intelligence structures. While preparations for the intelligence review have been under way for some time, the extraordinary message disclosures appear to have influenced the timing of its announcement.
Albanese unveiled details of the review without fanfare on Friday of last week, two days before the first Nine story appeared and after government ministers were alerted to a coming Pezzullo-related bombshell story via questions from journalist Nick McKenzie.
Such intelligence reviews are generally held every five to seven years and this one comes six years after the last. It will examine agency structures, including the role of Home Affairs, which currently has the statutory domestic spy agency, ASIO, within its portfolio stable. Historically, ASIO and several other security agencies fell within the attorney-general’s portfolio, but were moved across on the new department’s creation in 2017. When Labor took office, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus reclaimed portfolio responsibility for four other agencies, including the Australian Federal Police.
Responsibility for ASIO overall was left with Clare O’Neil in Home Affairs, although Dreyfus continues to be responsible for approving warrant applications.
The Saturday Paper understands there are differing views within government on whether ASIO should stay where it is or return to its previous home.
Australian National University professor John Blaxland, who wrote the official history of ASIO and now represents the ANU in Washington, DC, has changed his position on the subject. In 2017, he argued against shifting the agencies to Home Affairs. “That was because while Mike Pezzullo argued there were efficiencies to be gained, there were some obvious inefficiencies…” Blaxland says. “But 2023 going into 2024 is different to 2017.”
Blaxland says many mid-level ASIO officers have not worked under any other construct. “I think it’s an argument for leaving as is because there’s now so much water under the bridge and because the procedures – they work.”
Blaxland acknowledges the political difficulty Albanese faces with Dreyfus wanting ASIO back but O’Neil potentially reluctant to lose a key responsibility. He says the review is expected to focus more on other issues, including the role of artificial intelligence and open-source material, the managerial operations of the Office of National Intelligence and the coordination of cyber capabilities, in which O’Neil has been heavily involved.
On what the leaked messages suggest about Pezzullo, Blaxland says: “He’s an incredibly hardworking, conscientious patriot but he’s human and that much power for so long is very hard for anyone to resist without pushing the envelope on propriety.”
While the intelligence review was not prompted by the publication of the Pezzullo–Briggs message exchanges, announcing it formally before Nine published its story avoids any suggestion it was a reaction to the exposé. The identity of one of the reviewers may also have been a motivator. The intelligence examination will be conducted jointly by diplomat and former Labor government security adviser Richard Maude and former departmental secretary Heather Smith, who is married to Martin Parkinson.
Another prominent alleged Pezzullo target, George Brandis, has not hidden his animosity towards the Home Affairs chief, which harks back to Brandis’s time as attorney-general. The messages suggest the feeling has long been mutual.
In a reported exchange with Briggs in August 2017, Pezzullo named then attorney-general Brandis as among those who were “sniping and conducting an insurgency” against the looming creation of Home Affairs, for which Pezzullo had been lobbying. “We must push on and over the top of this resistance,” he told Briggs at the time.
This week, Brandis told The Saturday Paper he did not believe Pezzullo’s actions were typical of public servants. “Apart from destroying his own reputation, it would be a tragedy if Pezzullo’s conduct was to cause lasting reputational harm to the Australian public service. I think he was very much a lone wolf.”
Last month, Brandis wrote a newspaper column calling for Pezzullo to go. After details of the messages were published on Monday, he wrote another opinion piece, advocating for ASIO to return to his old department and launching a broadside at the bureaucrat.
“Whatever happens to Pezzullo now,” he wrote, “his position is plainly untenable, since no minister Labor or Liberal will ever be able to trust him again.”
Therein lies Pezzullo’s biggest problem. Having worked effectively for both sides of politics, it now appears neither is invested in keeping him on.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Vexed messages".
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