Pezzullo story points to serious systemic problems in the Australian Public Service
The revelations in the Nine newspapers that Mike Pezzullo, secretary of the powerful Home Affairs department, shared with Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs are certainly extraordinary. But, just like the revelations about Robodebt from the royal commission, they must not be treated as an isolated case but as evidence of serious systemic problems in the Australian Public Service (APS).
So what is expected from public servants in terms of their relationship with government? The answer is in the Public Service Act, which states secretaries – those at the very top of each department – must uphold and promote the APS Values and Employment Principles. One of those values is impartiality:
The APS is apolitical and provides the government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.
The conduct of the public service is overseen by the public service commissioner, who issues legal directions about how bureaucrats must conduct themselves consistent with each APS Value.
Regarding being impartial, this means, among other things:
- serving the government of the day with high quality professional support, irrespective of which political party is in power and of personal political beliefs
- ensuring the individual’s actions do not provide grounds for a reasonable person to conclude the individual could not serve the government of the day impartially
- ensuring management and staffing decisions are made on a basis that is independent of the political party system, free from political bias and not influenced by the individual’s political beliefs
- implementing government policies in a way that is free from bias, and in accordance with the law.
The APS Code of Conduct requires public servants
at all times to behave in a way that upholds the APS Values and Employment Principles, and the integrity and good reputation of the employee’s Agency and the APS.
In the event the head of an agency (including a departmental secretary) is alleged to have breached the code, the commissioner is responsible for inquiring into the allegation and reporting to the prime minister. Penalties for breaches include dismissal.
From the details in the article, it is understandable Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has referred the matter to the commissioner. By implication, the article alleges breaches of the code for not upholding the APS value of impartiality: Pezzullo’s alleged actions not only suggest partisanship, but also lack of objectivity and allowing his personal political beliefs to affect his professional support for the government. It’s extremely difficult to see how the messages Pezzullo allegedly sent to Briggs could be seen to be consistent with upholding the values, let alone promoting them as he is required to do.
Pezzullo may claim the material revealed in the article was private, as demonstrated by its encryption. He may also highlight the references the article said he included about his own neutrality. But it would be hard to suggest he was not trying to influence decisions by the government, or that the alleged messages were not highly political.
Moreover, when a person is as senior as Pezzullo, trying to distinguish between public and private behaviour is problematic. I recall telling Max Moore-Wilton, former secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet under John Howard, that his presence at Howard’s election night function in 2001 was inconsistent with his obligation to uphold and promote non-partisanship, despite his claims this was a private matter in his private time. I noted that, had Kim Beazley won that election, Moore-Wilton would have needed to be able to demonstrate his capacity to serve the new prime minister professionally and impartially.
Trust is the critical ingredient of a secretary’s relationship with their minister. And a secretary does not know who their minister will be tomorrow or next year, whether within the current government or under a new government.
So trust has to be achieved across the parliament and with the Australian public. It’s hard to see that Pezzullo’s messages are in any way consistent with such trust. A host of Liberal ministers, had they known of the messages, would have had no trust in Pezzullo, let alone a Labor minister.
At a different time, Pezzullo was on Beazley’s staff. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does raise the question of whether he has behaved, to use the late professor of public administration Peter Aucoin’s term, in a “promiscuously partisan” way. That is, crossing the boundary between the public service and politics.
A central issue in the Robodebt case was whether senior public servants were being overly responsive to their ministers and ignoring their obligations to uphold and promote the values (and the law). Public service failures in the sports rorts and Morrison multiple-ministries cases have raised a similar question. Aucoin drew attention to this problem in Australia and other Anglophone countries over a decade ago. Clearly, it has become a lot worse in Australia since then.
My own view is that the contract system for secretaries, which means they are constantly under an implicit threat of losing their jobs, is contributing to excessive willingness to please. There is evidence of some sensible actions by the current APS commissioner and the secretary of prime minister and cabinet to place more emphasis on merit in the appointment process.
But more needs to be done, including in the legislation, if we are to rebuild the trust that is essential between the public service and all sides of politics, the parliament and the Australian public.
Another possible measure, but one not directly relevant in the Pezzullo case, is to prohibit any senior public servant from being a member of any political party. That might put some meat on the requirement to promote, as well as uphold, the value of impartiality.
Mike Pezzullo and the trashing of the Australian Public Service
While Home Affairs has been involved in scandal after scandal, it turns out its secretary Mike Pezzullo was busy playing political games with party powerbrokers.
There are few things sadder in public administration than a public servant who thinks they’re a political player — a bureaucrat convinced they should be participating in the power games of elected officials, and that they have some political nous to bring to the table.
Mike Pezzullo now stands revealed as one of those pathetic figures, a man who thought not merely that it was appropriate to be exchanging a large volume of political texts with a Liberal powerbroker, but that he brought some political insight and smarts to the conversation.
Pezzullo should have resigned last night, when the story — a fantastic get by Nine’s Nick McKenzie, Michael Bachelard and Amelia Ballinger — of his exchanges with Liberal identity Scott Briggs emerged. But as his responses to critical auditor-general reports have often shown, Pezzullo has never been big on accepting responsibility — including when caught out by the media, whom Pezzullo describes as “bottom feeders“.
His minister, Clare O’Neill, has referred him to the Australian Public Service Commission. So we’ll have to wait to see if Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer thinks sending free character assessments of senior ministers, lobbying for appointments to his own portfolio and engaging in partisan commentary — not to mention lobbying for the destruction of media freedom — constitute a breach of the APS values and the APS code of conduct.
At least now we know what Pezzullo was doing while his department was the single most incompetently run agency in the Commonwealth. On Pezzullo’s watch, the Department of Immigration, and then Home Affairs as it became, has delivered:
- the Paladin contract scandal, which was exposed in 2019;
- a major review concluding our migration system was no longer fit for purpose;
- the Cape Class patrol boat debacle;
- appalling processing of citizenship applications;
- losing control of Australia’s borders to an organised illegal migrant scheme under Peter Dutton;
- over 100 people unlawfully detained by Home Affairs;
- a scathing secret review revealing major weaknesses in Home Affairs’ visa systems being exploited by criminals;
- a breach of caretaker conventions by the department;
- major bribery allegations in relation to payments made to Pacific politicians.
It’s become clear since the establishment of Home Affairs under Pezzullo in late 2017 — Pezzullo long championed the creation of the super-department — that as an entity it is simply not fit for purpose. Under Pezzullo, its senior management has been in constant churn — nearly 50 senior executive service (SES) positions in the department’s monumental org chart are currently listed as “acting” — a problem that has characterised Home Affairs since its inception. And this is the streamlined version: one of Labor’s first acts was to move the AFP, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and AUSTRAC out of Home Affairs and back to the Attorney-General’s Department.
While such a huge department might be beyond any one person to effectively manage, Pezzullo has devoted his precious time to penning bizarre letters to his SES, hyping the threat of war (despite that issue being entirely outside his portfolio), and warning of the end of the world. Only now do we learn that he was also devoting his time to playing political games with a Liberal powerbroker and offering his own advice on ministerial appointments.
What’s all the more ironic is that the Morrison prime ministership (which these texts pre-date) was characterised, in public service terms, by a philosophy that public servants were to be seen and not heard, that politicians decided what would happen and the only task of public servants was to implement it as quickly and effectively as possible. It turns out that Morrison was quite happy to have, as one of his most powerful bureaucrats, a man whose philosophy of the public service was to be heard very loudly, on both policy and political matters, including who should be sent to his portfolio.
Neither, it turns out, were displaying good judgment.
Since publication, Prime Minister Albanese’s office has produced the following statement:
This morning, the Home Affairs minister asked the secretary of her department, Michael Pezzullo, to stand aside while an Australian Public Service Commission investigation is undertaken into the allegations reported overnight.
Mr Pezzullo has agreed to step aside pending the independent review.
Former Australian Public Service commissioner Lynelle Briggs will be conducting the inquiry.
Stephanie Foster will act as the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs.
This article by Bernard Keane was 1st published in Crikey