Unethical conduct by one of Australia’s most senior public servants risks further eroding trust in government

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock
25 September 2023

Originally published in The Guardian.

Extreme politicisation of the public service puts confidence in democracy in jeopardy and must be met by strong and swift action.

At the heart of a healthy democracy is integrity. For our hardworking public servants this means transparency, independence and accountability.

Under the APS Code of Conduct, public servants are required to be independent and not improperly use their position or power to gain, or seek to gain, benefit for themselves.

Yet the political bromance between the head of the home affairs department, Michael Pezzullo, and Liberal powerbroker Scott Briggs, represented by hundreds of messages over five years, appears to show how the very senior public servant used his power for his political purposes.

Brought to light by journalists, this sorry saga outlined what looks like Pezzullo’s attempt to influence policymaking and political appointments by successive governments through his position and Briggs, a former New South Wales Liberals vice-president who personally knew former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.

Three particularly egregious examples stand out.

First, the messages show Pezzullo using his relationship with Briggs to put forward his opinions, including to have “moderate” Liberal MPs sacked from their cabinet positions and replaced by MPs more favourable to his views.

Second, in what could be seen as an attempt to further his own power, Pezzullo, then secretary at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, was also found to have lobbied hard for the creation of the all-powerful Department of Home Affairs. His aim was to have one department, which included taking Australian federal police and Asio from attorney generals, with him at the helm. Again, this would appear to show a public servant acting for his own self-interest.

Third, in an Orwellian move, Pezzullo tried to lobby to silence media reporting and limit the role of whistleblowers on national security issues. As the public servant responsible for law enforcement, Australia’s spy agency and domestic national security issues, he tried to influence the then prime minister Morrison to censor media outlets reporting on issues of national security. In another plotline closer to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Pezzullo also suggested using laws that are meant to protect people speaking out to instead jail reporters using information gained from whistleblowers.

To be clear, Pezzullo’s actions were not illegal or corrupt. But in my opinion they are an abuse of power. Think “jobs for mates”, “pork-barrelling”, or procuring influence through donations – basically, any behaviour or decision making by someone with entrusted power, like an MP or public official, that benefits their interests against the public interest but doesn’t amount to criminal conduct.

This unethical conduct by one of Australia’s most senior public servants risks further eroding people’s trust in government. Last year’s election survey by the Australian National University showed just three in 10 Australians believe people in government can be trusted.

Much of this trust deficit is due to the conveyor belt of federal and state government corruption scandals over the past 10 years.

This is also highlighted in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2012, we were almost top of the ladder with 85/100. In 2022, after a decade of decline equal in OECD nations only to authoritarian Hungary we dipped to 73/100. Last year off the national anti-corruption commission, Australia’s score on global corruption index went up two points to 75/100.

Unsurprisingly the countries that sit atop of the Corruption Perceptions Index – Denmark and New Zealand – have high levels of trust in the public service. Our neighbours across the ditch have also enshrined the independence of public service in law.

This extreme politicisation of the public service requires a strong and swift response. The action by the home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, to refer the matter to the Public Service Commissioner and the request for Pezzullo to stand aside do just that.

Let’s hope they lead to greater accountability and help restore trust in our democracy.