Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo
Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo has agreed to stand down over leaked text messages. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS
  • public officials

Powerful public servant’s text scandal could harm trust

Andrew Brown September 26, 2023

A text message scandal engulfing a powerful public servant threatens to smash public trust in government departments and institutions.

Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo, whose salary package is worth more than $900,000, has stood aside while an investigation takes place into leaked texts he sent to a Liberal Party powerbroker.

A trove of encrypted texts exposed by Nine Entertainment showed Mr Pezzullo repeatedly inserting himself into the political process over a five-year period, lobbying for his department and pushing his personal views, in breach of public service standards.

Han Aulby from the Centre for Public Integrity said the “alarming” messages risked undermining public trust.

“The public service is supposed to be independent and fearless in developing policy and advice in the public interest and seeing those sorts of private political interests from within is shocking,” they said.

“This scandal will probably have people distrusting the public service and adds weight to the belief that the government is all in it for themselves.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was grilled about the senior bureaucrat during a press conference on Tuesday but refused to say whether he would survive.

“We will have the inquiry that’s been established through the public service commissioner,” Mr Albanese told reporters.

“We will not respond to the detail before that inquiry, but I see it as an urgent matter.

“You have an independent inquiry so that you hear from the inquiry not so that you pre-empt it. That’s what we’re doing.”

Liberal senator Simon Birmingham said it was unlikely Mr Pezzullo would return to his role.

“He deserves the right to have a proper process but clearly the odds are stacked against in terms of the concerns that are being weighed,” he told Sky News.

Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie praised Mr Pezzullo’s work but said the boundaries between politics and public service needed to be observed.

Han Aulby said the scandal highlighted the need for tougher enforcement of a public service code of conduct.

“If they’re not enforced or acted upon on a personnel level, then it becomes a big risk,” they said.

Mr Pezzullo has also drawn criticism for attempting to introduce a D Notice system, cracking down on press freedom by pressuring media organisations not to publish stories deemed damaging to national security.

“D Notices have been used during wartime on rare occasions for the protection of national security but Australia is not at war and there is no justification for their use now,” media union boss Karen Percy said.

“This is just one example of a very disturbing problem that goes beyond one man … successive governments have done little to improve press freedom and as a consequence, we have seen Australia’s slip in world rankings.”