Public servant ‘stands aside’ over texts

Clare O’Neil has referred a matter involving her powerful department secretary Michael Pezzullo to the Australian Public Service Commissioner, after a weekend expose. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

A powerful public servant has stood aside and will be the subject of an investigation after a series of explosive texts revealed he had allegedly sought to influence government affairs.

The text messages, spanning five years, were obtained and published by the Nine newspapers and 60 Minutes on Sunday, which the outlets say revealed Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo had sought to influence the then-Coalition government.

The messages reveal how Mr Pezzullo – who has served both sides of politics – used Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs as a political back channel to former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison to undermine political and public service enemies, promote conservative politicians, and seek to muzzle the press.

Mr Briggs, a businessman, lobbyist, and former vice-president of the NSW Liberals, was a close confidant of former prime minister Scott Morrison.

The messages, which Nine says were obtained legally from a third party, reveal Mr Pezzullo sought to influence who would be the minister responsible for his department, and had angled for the promotion of “right-wingers” like Peter Dutton to be fed right into Mr Morrison and Mr Turnbull.

The messages also show Mr Pezzullo had badmouthed moderate Liberals, including Julie Bishop and Marise Payne.

After Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil earlier referred the matter to the Australian Public Service Commissioner, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed Mr Pezzullo had on Monday been asked to stand aside as an investigation was carried out, and had agreed.

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Senate Committee
Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo has been referred by his minister, Clare O’Neil, to the APS commissioner. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

“He has agreed to stand aside. That action is appropriate. We’ll await the findings of the investigation which we will expedite,” Mr Albanese said.

“We have a cabinet meeting this afternoon where no doubt I’ll be able to get further reports about that. We will make no further comment on the specifics for obvious reasons. It’s important that these processes are allowed to take their course.”

Ms O’Neil said Mr Pezzullo standing aside was “appropriate and in the public interest”.

“I became aware that there is an allegation of extensive communications between the secretary of my department and Mr Briggs. Immediately upon learning of this I referred this matter to the public service commissioner for his consideration and advice,” she said.

“I will have more to say on this matter when the inquiry has concluded.

“When I spoke to (Mr Pezzullo) this morning, I asked him to stand aside. That is the appropriate course of action, and I will not make further comment on this until the inquiry is concluded.”

An independent inquiry, headed up by former Australian Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs, will examine Mr Pezzullo’s conduct.

Greens Home Affairs spokesman Nick McKim had earlier said Mr Pezzullo’s time as a senior public servant “needs to end, and it needs to end today”, adding that if he wanted to “play in the political sandpit, then he should stand for parliament”.

“His... failure to respect the boundaries between politics and the public service mean that his position is untenable,” Senator McKim said.

“The PM needs to set high standards and make it clear what he will and will not stand for. The standard he walks past is the standard he accepts.”

“It was a grievous mistake for Mr Albanese to reappoint Mr Pezzullo when he came to office, and he now has the chance to correct the error.”

Greens senator Nick McKim says Mr Pezzullo must ‘resign or be sacked’. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

Defending Mr Pezzullo, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton - a former home affairs minister - said he had “found him to always be professional”.

“He conducted himself in a thoroughly professional way in my dealings with him, and that was my experience of dealing with Mr Pezzullo,” Mr Dutton said.

Among the messages made public, Mr Pezzullo told Mr Briggs he almost “had a heart attack” after Ms Bishop momentarily emerged as a challenger for prime minister during the 2018 leadership spill.

During the leadership contest and cabinet shuffle, Mr Pezzullo advised Mr Briggs who he thought should be the new home affairs minister: “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)’’.

He said having moderates in the Home Affairs position especially would be an impediment to his plan to build a powerful department, telling Mr Briggs: “Any suggestion of a moderate going in would be potentially lethal viz OSB (Operation Sovereign Borders)”.

The texts also reveal he had described Senator Payne – then defence minister – as “completely ineffectual” and texted Mr Briggs: “Marise is a problem!”

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Estimates
Mr Pezzullo asserted his preference for ‘right wingers’. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

He also ridiculed the Senate estimates process – one of the most important measures available to Australians to hold public servants and their ministers to account.

The Australian Public Service code of conduct requires public servants to be apolitical, independent, and “open and accountable”.

There is no suggestion that any of the exchanges were corrupt or illegal.

Mr Pezzullo has yet to make a comment.

In a statement, the Australian Public Service Commission said they take “referrals seriously. At this early stage it would be inappropriate to provide commentary that pre-empts any processes”.