By Nick McKenzie, Michael Bachelard and Amelia Ballinger
Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo. Credit: Illustration: Matthew Absalom-Wong
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One of Australia’s most influential public servants, Michael Pezzullo, spent years using a political back channel to two Liberal prime ministers to undermine political and public service enemies, promote the careers of conservative politicians he considered allies and lobby to muzzle the press.
The secret efforts of the Department of Home Affairs secretary to build his power while reshaping successive coalition governments and Australia’s national security regime are revealed in hundreds of encrypted messages Pezzullo sent to influential Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs, obtained by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes.
Briggs is a lobbyist, businessman, former vice-president of the NSW Liberals, and was a close confidant of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his successor, Scott Morrison. Pezzullo is the public servant in charge of Home Affairs, a department whose creation he championed and which Turnbull appointed him to lead in late 2017.
The messages show that after seeking out Briggs in 2016, Pezzullo used him to conduct a brazen, years-long effort to influence political machinations within the highest offices of the land, including during Liberal leadership spills.
“I don’t wish to interfere but you won’t be surprised to hear that in the event of ScoMo [Scott Morrison] getting up I would like to see Dutton come back to HA [Home Affairs]. No reason for him to stay on backbench that I can see,” Pezzullo wrote at 9.40pm on the night before the leadership spill against Turnbull in August 2018.
“I agree,” Briggs responded.
Political and constitutional experts who have reviewed some of the encrypted messages say they reveal that Pezzullo was operating well outside the Westminster system and rules for senior public servants.
The Australian Public Service Code of Conduct requires public servants to be apolitical, independent and “open and accountable”. In a 2018 speech Pezzullo himself said it was “important for the public servant to absent oneself from any partisan discussions and avoid exposure to raw politics”. Departmental secretaries had “a particular obligation to protect the boundary between the political and the administrative,” he said.
But in conversations involving more than a thousand messages over five years, mostly using encrypted messaging apps WhatsApp and Signal, Pezzullo bad-mouthed and undermined senior Coalition ministers and public servants, particularly those he viewed as impediments to his ambition to build a powerful Home Affairs department.
He was advising from the sidelines during politically sensitive moments, including the 2018 Liberal leadership spill, and he covertly told the Coalition how to overcome resistance from Labor and then shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus on a number of policies.
He smeared journalists who criticised national security reforms or his favoured ministers. He boasted of his efforts to make press freedom a “dead duck” and repeatedly lobbied Briggs to convince Morrison to introduce a media censorship regime. And he ridiculed the Senate estimates committee process – one of the key means of holding senior public servants and their ministers to account.
Briggs confirmed that he “had communications with Mike Pezzullo over a long period of time … continuing through to the present,” but said they were “always private matters”.
Pezzullo refused requests for an interview, but the department responded in a statement that it was “committed to continued transparency and accountability in all its endeavours,” and, “any allegations, accompanied by any relevant evidence, should be referred to the appropriate authorities”.
Michael Pezzullo was critical of former defence minister Marise Payne and Senate estimates hearings. This photo was taken during a hearing in 2019. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes are not suggesting any of the exchanges are corrupt or illegal, only that they were inappropriate for a senior public servant. A professor of public policy and law at Griffith University, AJ Brown, said the revelations of Pezzullo’s behaviour made his position “untenable almost instantly”.
“Our whole system of government relies on trust … that senior public servants are not entering into political games and political manipulation … when they’re supposed to be carrying out the needs and the wishes of the community,” Brown said. “I think this is an example of where an
investigation is warranted.”
Labor kept Pezzullo as the head of Home Affairs after it won the 2022 election, despite a perception that he was too close to the previous government. He now reports to minister Clare O’Neil, who earlier this year declared the migration system, which Home Affairs administers, “broken”.
In the past year, this masthead and 60 Minutes have highlighted Home Affairs’ failure to stop human traffickers and criminals entering Australia, and of running an offshore asylum seeker processing regime in which contractors allegedly bribed and made improper payments, including to foreign politicians.
Those reports have triggered two inquiries, the damning Nixon probe and an ongoing investigation by former spy chief Dennis Richardson into offshore contracting arrangements. Pezzullo’s department is now responsible for implementing the recommendations of those reports.
Messages by the thousand
This masthead and 60 Minutes learnt of the messages and their content via a third party who obtained lawful access to them. We reviewed them while investigating Briggs’ involvement in a tender process for a failed billion-dollar contract for a new visa processing system from Pezzullo’s department.
Over five years of messages reviewed by this masthead, Briggs never raised the tender or gained inside information from Pezzullo. Briggs insisted that the conversations “never related to any procurement” and that he had disclosed his relationship with Pezzullo.
However, the messages reveal the department secretary frequently contacted the Liberal powerbroker on other issues, sometimes during the active portions of the tender process, as he sought to use Briggs to exercise political influence outside normal channels.
They capture Pezzullo repeatedly undermining and denigrating Liberal cabinet ministers. Most of his ire was reserved for moderate politicians, while he championed more conservative politicians who backed his stance on national security reforms.
He described then defence minister Marise Payne, a leading Liberal moderate, as “completely ineffectual” and told Briggs: “Marise is a problem!”
When Briggs responded that former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull “thinks so too” but “it may be too hard for him to dump a woman”, Pezzullo responded: “If she stays then she has to stop thinking and acting like a Foreign Minister lite … she looks weak. And she doesn’t have a clear view of the national interest – it’s just whatever Defence wants.”
Payne declined to comment.
In the same exchange, Pezzullo urged the sacking of another leading moderate, the then defence industry minister: “And get rid of [Christopher] Pyne from that silly portfolio. You can say that he has done his job!”
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and former foreign minister Julie Bishop exit the party room after the second Liberal leadership spill of 2018.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Pezzullo derided former foreign minister Julie Bishop, describing how he “almost had a heart attack” in 2018 after she briefly emerged as a prime ministerial challenger. When she was a backbencher, Pezzullo mocked the fact that she had appeared in a fashion shoot with TV personality Kerri-Anne Kennerley, and later criticised the former foreign minister in response to a story headlined Julie Bishop has an epic fashion moment for a good cause.
“Sorry. She has agency and autonomy. I get it. But how does this advance the cause of strong, independent policy or business relevant women?”
Bishop was approached for comment but did not respond.
Pezzullo also sniped at a senior female Labor politician, Kristina Keneally, telling Briggs she looked “quite unhinged” in her challenge for the Liberal-held seat of Bennelong in 2017.
‘Put them to the sword’
The messages began in 2017 as Pezzullo pushed hard within the Turnbull government to introduce a new Home Affairs department. It would bring powerful agencies formerly under the watch of the attorney-general, including ASIO and the AFP, under the umbrella of a new super-department with Immigration and Border Protection. The department was to be led by Pezzullo.
In lobbying for the change, Pezzullo attacked the senior Coalition ministers who were wary of his push.
“The ones who [are] sniping and conducting an insurgency [against Home Affairs] are a couple of Ministers … We must push on and over the top of this resistance,” Pezzullo messaged Briggs in August 2017. Then attorney-general George Brandis was “hand braking” the Attorney-General’s Department as he resisted the reforms.
“George has got them running in circles,” Pezzullo complained, accusing the then attorney-general of a “deliberate strategy” of ”lawyering” public servants “into a state of befuddlement”.
“Brandis behaviour is getting worse,” Pezzullo told Briggs in another encrypted message, prompting Briggs to respond: “I’ve fed that into the PM. I think things may be getting closer to a Brandis departure.”
When Briggs told Pezzullo he might be “Seeing scott and malcolm [former prime ministers Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull]” for dinner and asked Pezzullo if there were any messages he wanted him to convey, Pezzullo responded: “Yep. Home Affairs is going well except Agd [Attorney-General’s Department] needs to be put to the sword … Once that is settled we can break out of the Normandy beachhead.”
Three months later, shortly before Brandis’ long-rumoured departure to take up a diplomatic posting was announced, he gave a highly praised speech in parliament supporting same-sex marriage. Pezzullo wrote: “George seems to be trying to negotiate a stay of execution. If that were to occur, he would have to change his mindset and behaviours regarding Home Affairs. He is in complete denial about Home Affairs.”
Brandis told The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes that Pezzullo “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” because, unbeknown to Pezzullo, he had resolved to leave politics “more than a year before that message”. More importantly, the conversations were out of bounds for a public servant.
“What he’s not entitled to do is seek to manipulate the political process so as to manipulate the political debate and manipulate and undermine senior members of the cabinet. That is more than giving advice or expressing a view,” he said.
When Pezzullo messaged Briggs a news story in December 2017 announcing Brandis’ resignation to take up a diplomatic posting, Briggs replied “have I ever let you down?” Pezzullo responded with an applause emoji.
In a series of messages, Pezzullo also attacked another cabinet minister resisting the Home Affairs reform, former justice minister Michael Keenan, describing him as a politician who was “passive and lacks impact”.
“Keenan … needs to get with the program,” Pezzullo wrote in another message. “He needs to lift his sights and his horizons, rather than getting stuck on questions of status and prestige.”
‘You need a right winger’
During the August 2018 three-way battle for the Liberal Party leadership between Peter Dutton, Morrison and Turnbull, Pezzullo repeatedly sought to use Briggs’ influence with two of the candidates to have a conservative installed as his minister.
Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton fought for the Liberal Party leadership in 2018.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
“You need a right winger in there – people smugglers will be watching … Please feed that in [to Morrison and Turnbull],” Pezzullo messaged as the political battle played out in Parliament House.
“If Dutton is out, give me [Angus] Taylor or [Alan] Tudge,” Pezzullo texted as the pair also assessed the chances of right-wing senators Jim Molan and Michaelia Cash. When Briggs responded that Dutton may hold on to Home Affairs, Pezzullo responded: “Terrific.”
“Any suggestion of a moderate going in would be potentially lethal viz OSB [Operation Sovereign Borders],” he insisted.
“Tudge or Taylor would be the easiest transition,” Pezzullo added, but “Scott [Morrison] would be a dream – would hit the ground running.” Morrison had earlier served as Pezzullo’s minister, with the pair overseeing then prime minister Tony Abbott’s signature policy, Operation Sovereign Borders, in 2013.
During the turbulence, Briggs also hit up Pezzullo for a favour: “Mate request from Scott [Morrison] – we need you to recommend to the pm [Turnbull] that Scott stays in the [Home Affairs] role for next week.”
A summit of Australia’s Five Eyes security allies was coming up and Briggs said it was “too important” not to have an experienced Home Affairs minister in place.
“Done,” Pezzullo responded. “It’s in the national interest. It’s an executive matter, upon which I can express a view – my recommendation is not related to the Liberal leadership.”
The exchange is one of a number of times Pezzullo tried to stress that his intervention was apolitical, even though the request was coming from a political operative with no formal role in government.
Pezzullo went on to ask Briggs, “Do you need it done tonight?”
When Briggs informed Pezzullo that he was helping Morrison in “brokering a way forward” towards the prime ministership, Pezzullo responded: “How do you bring the conservatives in? Dutton back into HA [Home Affairs]?” Pezzullo also queried if Bishop and Payne would be sacked from cabinet: “Julie? Out? Marise out?”
When Briggs said it had become clear the leadership contest would come down to Morrison versus Dutton, Pezzullo wrote: “Then hopefully unite after that, whomever wins. We need them both on the field – not for Liberal Party’s sake but for the country’s sake. A grand coalition??”
After Morrison was confirmed as prime minister, Pezzullo congratulated Briggs: “You played a blinder.” Briggs responded that Morrison was “talking ministry tomorrow” with his inner circle and that Briggs would “chat with you then.” Pezzullo responded with more praise, describing Morrison’s first press conference as the nation’s leader as “perfectly pitched” and “pure genius”.
“Get some rest. We’ll speak over the weekend,” the departmental secretary told the political influencer.
In other exchanges, Pezzullo urged Abbott’s return from the political wilderness.
“Any chance of being able to rehabilitate Abbott and to bring the conservatives more into line? Pipe dream?” In another, Pezzullo queried if Morrison needed to “solve TA [Tony Abbott] placement issue” and, when told Morrison “has a solution”, he offered his own remedy for the former prime minister: “Can I give you another one? Can I call?”
A ‘tricky tightrope’
While Pezzullo peppered his encrypted conversations with claims that he was apolitical and “a neutral servant of the government of the day”, integrity expert AJ Brown said the content of the messages and the fact they were sent to Briggs suggest Pezzullo was acting like a politician.
It was “hard to see how the attempt to influence these kinds of decisions using these kinds of channels doesn’t breach … most of the core principles of accountability and good conduct that a permanent head of a government department would be expected to comply with,” Brown said.
Constitutional lawyer George Williams said Pezzullo’s messages were “exactly the sort of things you would not want a [public service] secretary involved in … it left me very uneasy … and I think it’s really concerning, given how we expect our Westminster system to operate”.
By using an encrypted app, Pezzullo communicated in a manner likely to leave little trace of his actions. And at times, he seemed conscious he might be stepping over a line.
“Please keep our conversation confidential. Tricky tight rope for me,” Pezzullo said in one message.
In another, he appeared to make light of his push for power.
“Perhaps give me Defence and HA [Home Affairs] at the same time (wink emoji),” Pezzullo messaged to Briggs in July 2017.
But Pezzullo repeatedly undermined the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and its secretary, Martin Parkinson, calling them “incompetent” and “insecure”, while also suggesting he would be suitable to replace him.
Former Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer
“Parkinson isn’t up to it,” Pezzullo told Briggs in one message. In others he said that “Martin P’s insecurities don’t need to be fed” and described Parkinson as “entirely lacking in self awareness”.
Pezzullo suggested to Briggs he take over from Parkinson as the most senior public servant in the country. If Morrison “wants a driver in there, I would do it for him. It’s not a job that I’ve ever been interested in but if he needs a finisher in there I would of course answer the call,” Pezzullo wrote.
Pezzullo’s smearing of Parkinson creates a headache for the Albanese government, given Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil recently commissioned Parkinson to review Australia’s migration system. Pezzullo’s department is responsible for implementing the reforms recommended in Parkinson’s report.
Parkinson declined to comment. Asked if the approaches were appropriate, a spokesman for Morrison said he was “not aware of the matters you have raised … and therefore rejects the allegations of the nature of communications with Mr Pezzullo as false and fanciful.
“Mr Morrison worked with Mr Pezzullo over many years and would speak with him directly, if required. There was no need for any other channel of communication. These communications were always appropriate and drew on Mr Pezzullo’s experience and responsibilities as Secretary for the Department of Home Affairs.”
The Australian Public Service standards say bureaucrats should serve the government of the day, but are not entitled to act in a way “perceived as criticism of the Opposition”. Pezzullo repeatedly offered party political advice on how to overcome Labor resistance to the Home Affairs idea, including criticism of then shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus.
In July 2017 he wrote that: “As long as Labor doesn’t snipe at HA (and I think that that is going to be unlikely – except for Dreyfus), I would be happy to explain the intellectual basis of HA in policy and strategy terms.”
In November, Pezzullo suggested some policy tweaks designed to “satisfy [former opposition leader Bill] Shorten, if not some others.”
“Only issue will then be if Labor sees an opportunity to tack left on this,” Pezzullo wrote, before offering further political advice: “Home Affairs will become a proxy for strength on national security – would be hard for Labor to oppose.”
Liberal powerbroker Scott Briggs frequently exchanged messages with Michael Pezzullo over five years.
“[Mark] Dreyfus might be the only obstacle remaining,” Pezzullo wrote, “but I don’t think that he would have any weight internally when it comes to raw political calculations”.
Making adverse comments on one Labor senator, Pezzullo said the “Parliamentary route is now contaminated with a few exceptions. We need to build a meritocracy by stealth and run government through the bureaucracy, working to 4-5 powerful and capable Ministers”.
At times Pezzullo appeared to be barracking for the Coalition. When Briggs said the numbers were “tracking well” for the Liberal candidate in a 2017 byelection, Pezzullo responded: “That will give the PM momentum going into Christmas … might even start to translate into general polls.”
On a “super Saturday” of five byelections in July 2018, Briggs relayed that Turnbull was “feeling very positive … Confident we can pick up 2 [seats]“.
“That will change the game,” Pezzullo replied, before offering some political advice. “Not my business but you will need to be careful about rushing to capitalise at the polls. Punters hate that,” he said.
“Agree,” said Briggs.
He also expressed his dislike of Senate estimates committee hearings, in which senior public servants are grilled by parliamentary committee members about the finer details of policy delivery.
“No hits out of estimates,” he observed in October 2017, though Greens senator Nick McKim “called me a fascist so I will go back to polishing my jackboots and stroking my leathers!”
In 2020 his tone was tougher.
“Estimates is actually a concern for our democracy,” he wrote in a message at 9.29pm. “We have been here since 0900 – in batting terms we are 0-400.”
“There is no better argument for the abolition of the senate than watching senate estimates … it serves no public good,” Briggs responded.
In other attempts to undercut scrutiny, Pezzullo used an embarrassing story written by journalist Annika Smethurst – whose home was later raided by police – to press then prime minister Scott Morrison to introduce a new regime of so-called “D Notices” to stifle media reporting.
The regime would allow the government to push against the publication of stories if they believed they threatened national security.
He ultimately did not succeed.
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