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Monday, June 24, 2024

The Mike Pezzullo scandal has damaged Australia

So we now know Mike Pezzullo played the last couple of Coalition governments like a fiddle, and a small part about how he played them.

The obvious next question is how he has played the Albanese Government – who were his Labor tools, his mugs?

And a bit behind that is the extent he has played much of the press gallery.

It is worth noting that the very fine Age exposure of “the Pez” came out of Melbourne, not Canberra, the work of Michael Bachelard and Nick McKenzie, not the journalists who were often up close and personal with Pezzullo, the ones he described as “some colleagues in the fourth estate”.

Damning messages

There is a further question about how The Age team acquired the damning WhatsApp messages between Pezzullo and his Liberal Party operative Scott Briggs.

There is generally a story behind such a story, but that is of much lesser matter at present than the nervousness in multiple Canberra households lest Pezzullo’s full correspondence with multiple people be revealed.

And the Pez had multiple agents, willing or unconscious. It would be ridiculously naïve to think otherwise.

He worked both sides of the street in his ambition to shape policy and government, never mind shaping his own career and that of others he deemed useful or worthy – fellow soldiers for building the “right” sort of Australia as he saw fit.

Despite the theatre of party politics, there are similar conservative souls on both sides, individuals who have more in common with each other on matters of power and perceived national security and secrecy than with the liberal elements of their own parties. Those Michael Pezzullo disclosed in his WhatsApp missives thrived under both colours.

There are obvious suspects in both major parties who subscribe to a Pezzullo world view, the “dingo warriors” and would-be restrictors of public information.

Journalist’s home raided

As for the ability of Pezzullo and like-minded spooks to influence public debate and the media, there was a telling exchange when he was trying to shut down the embarrassment Annika Smethurst caused him by reporting on his attempt to unleash Australia’s defence signals intelligence arm on ordinary Australians. Smethurst’s home was subsequently raided by the AFP.

Pezzullo wrote to his Liberal functionary mate:

“Here is what I have sent to some colleagues in the 4th estate: I respect your journalism but I am calling foul on your commentary on the AFP warrant on Smethurst. You cannot possible defend so called ‘public interest journalism’; which is entirely false … She was fed a classified document and without any quotation therefore concocted a fiction … Final comment on Smethurst – why do you think her handler picked her, rather that say an experienced national security journalist. Think about it.”

Never mind for now that Smethurst’s story was correct. Think about how he viewed his spook colleague’s use of journalists – “her handler”.

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.

In my opinion, he was describing the way he thought of his own role in managing selected journalists – he was their “handler”; they were his agents to be used to suit his purposes.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane has highlighted Pezzullo’s own leaking of documents while decrying those who leak documents that don’t suit him.

The Pez had claimed such leaking was “completely unacceptable for public servants”.

“In fact, it’s completely acceptable for national security bureaucrats and politicians to play inter- and intra-agency games with national security documents – or, at least, they do it all the time,” wrote Keane.

‘A self-serving narrative’

“Information deemed to be confidential or secret is often used by both politicians and senior bureaucrats to curry favour with (or ‘turn’, to use another Pezzullo phrase) journalists, in order to deliver a self-serving narrative, to push a favoured government line, to discredit critics or opponents,” Keane wrote.

The Crikey angle was in light of “yet another extraordinary and humiliating revelation about Pezzullo, that he shared a confidential assessment prepared after the Christchurch massacre with not even a journalist but interlocutor and Liberal Party figure Scott Briggs”.

To underline the obvious: For all the astounding revelations in The Age’s WhatsApp trove, it is only one means of communication Pezzullo used with one of his agents.

And Pezzullo is only one “handler” in this Canberra game. There are others.

It has been a source of head-shaking dismay among some senior journalism veterans that much of the press gallery has been so completely captured by the defence and national security industry, fed and watered what the spooks have wanted to feed and water them, swallowed without the healthy scepticism and awareness that should guard the trade.

And it hasn’t just been the Pez.

The result is a much bigger problem than one conservative-minded public servant building an empire, promoting politicians and bending policy to his personal preference.

Puzzullo the "Handler

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.”

It has shaped and weakened what should have been a nuanced national policy debate about our security and defence.

It has damaged Australia.

This article by Michael Pascoe was originally published in The New Daily

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