We must never again see a public servant like Pezzullo

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The sacking on Monday of public service hard man Michael Pezzullo brings to a close an appalling episode in the history of the Australian bureaucracy. Here was a man who adopted the swagger of a modern-day “mandarin” – a bastion of the finest traditions of the frank and fearless advice expected from public servants – but who in reality was playing the most brazen backroom political games in pursuit of his own power and position.

The announcement on Monday by Australian Public Service Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer that Pezzullo had breached the Australian Public Service code of conduct at least 14 times comes as no surprise to anyone who read the extraordinary revelations in Nick McKenzie and Michael Bachelard’s reporting in The Age in September about Pezzullo’s encrypted communications with Liberal powerbroker Scott Briggs.

Pezzullo’s fall from grace could not be more complete. A man who had made a virtue in speech after speech of his uprightness and the importance of impartial public service, and who was contemptuous of scrutiny, has become the first department head in history to be dismissed for misconduct.

To add pecuniary penalty, the Remuneration Tribunal just days ago changed the rules covering financial payouts for departing public servants so that those who are sacked will not receive the usual golden parachute. This was done while the government had in hand the scathing report of former public service commissioner Lynelle Briggs, so it could safely be described as the Pezzullo clause.

It was the right decision. It was galling enough that for the eight weeks that Lynelle Briggs was conducting her inquiry, Pezzullo was sitting at home and receiving his $900,000 annual salary as Home Affairs secretary. That’s $140,000 taxpayers won’t see again. To have also been forced to pay him out after sacking him would have led to justified public outcry.

The upshot is that Pezzullo has gone from the job he invented under Malcolm Turnbull – the head of super-department Home Affairs – and then clung onto in part via naked politicking for six years through several changes of prime minister.

So what, more broadly, can we learn from this imbroglio? The first thing is that no matter how effective, powerful, charismatic and well-connected they are, public servants must still be bound by the terms of what Pezzullo described as their “vocational calling”.

They cannot, as he was found to have done, use their duty, power, status or authority to seek to gain a benefit or advantage for themselves; they cannot denigrate ministers and their fellow senior public servants, misuse sensitive government information, act politically, or fail to disclose conflicts of interest.

This is a message that governments and ministers must heed. Former minister Karen Andrews said Pezzullo could be “particularly charming” and that, when she started in the role, “he bent over backwards to help me”. She later realised he was not indispensable.

Even so, he retained his position – to the surprise of many on the left – under Labor minister Clare O’Neil, who, as Nick McKenzie observes, initially found him useful, then impressive.

It’s admirable that the Albanese government did not, willy nilly, remove public servants, as previous governments have done. Continuity and a fearless public service are important to good governance. But that does not mean governments should exercise no judgment at all.

The reports into aspects of the department’s operations by Christine Nixon, Martin Parkinson and more recently Dennis Richardson have all laid bare serious failings in Home Affairs, and once the problems were identified, Pezzullo could not have been the man to try to fix them – he was simply too tainted. But before The Age published the contents of his private communications, that seemed precisely what was about to happen.

Poor behaviour by senior public servants cannot be left to investigative reporters alone to unearth. There must be systemic ways to root out misbehaviour; these are powerful and well-paid positions, and they should be open to stringent scrutiny.

Journalists, parliamentarians and the auditor-general had been pointing out the department’s failings for many years, and Pezzullo’s behaviour was an open secret at the top echelons. But his politicking seemed to make him immune from consequences in the cabinets of several governments. This should never be allowed to happen again.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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