Mike Pezzullo. The demise of a Canberra’s “most powerful, divisive, and yet indestructible bureaucrat”

by Philip Dorling and Rex Patrick | Feb 25, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

The not-so-distinguished service of former Secretary of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo ended in a blaze of ignominy, and there may be more coming. Rex Patrick and Philip Dorling with the story.

Mike Pezzullo got a gong in the June 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours. The then Home Affairs Secretary was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for “distinguished service to public administration through leadership roles in the areas of national security, border control and immigration.”

Pezzullo joined the Defence Department in 1987 and, over more than three and a half decades, rose to a position of remarkable prominence in the national security establishment. ‘The Pezz’, as he was widely known, clawed his way to the top, becoming what one seasoned observer of Federal politics described as Canberra’s “most powerful, divisive, and yet indestructible bureaucrat.”

Yet in November 2023, Pezzullo was sacked from the top ranks of the Australian Public Service (APS).

The Home Affairs Secretary’s termination came within a week of the completion of a report by former APS Commissioner Lynelle Briggs, acting as a delegate for current APS Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer, concerning reports about Pezzullo’s conduct that had been published by investigative journalists Nick McKenzie and Michael Bachelard.

Briggs’ conclusions were damning. She alleged Pezzullo had repeatedly breached the APS Code of Conduct, used his position as a Departmental Secretary to gain a benefit or advantage for himself, and “failed to maintain confidentiality of sensitive government information.”

Briggs further alleged Pezzullo failed to act apolitically in his employment, disclosed a conflict of interest, and “engaged in gossip and disrespectful critique of Ministers and public servants.”

Briggs’ findings were utterly at odds with any notion of ‘distinguished service to public administration’.

Swift termination

As bureaucratic and political executions go, it was an efficient affair, something that Pezzullo, an immensely experienced bureaucratic operator with a keen sense of history, may well have appreciated. After all, he had once called for the rival Attorney-General’s Department to be “put to the sword.”

Pezzullo would have known his days were numbered as soon as he learned that his highly inflammatory text messages with Liberal Party power broker Scott Briggs (no relative of the former Public Service Commissioner) were in the hands of investigative journalists and would soon be published. His WhatsApp and Signal messages could presumably only be found on electronic devices belonging to only two people – Pezzullo himself and his confidante Briggs.

In their initial report, Nine Entertainment’s McKenzie and Bachelard were somewhat coy about how they had accessed “thousands” of private messages, saying, “This masthead [SMH, Age] 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.”

The resultant story, published in the evening of Sunday, 24 September 2023, was a sensational scoop, with Pezzullo revealed to have used Briggs as a clandestine political back-channel to two Liberal Prime Ministers to undermine his political and public service enemies, promote the careers of right-wing politicians he valued as allies in bolstering his Home Security empire, and to lobby to censor the press while advocating criminal penalties for journalists who published classified information.

Revelation of Pezzullo’s highly unorthodox, indeed outrageous secret political manoeuvring immediately rendered his position untenable. The next morning, 25 September, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neill consulted with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and required Pezzullo to stand aside, albeit on full pay with a salary package exceeding $900,000 per annum, while she referred the matter to APS Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer, for an ‘expedited’ investigation.

Within a day de Brouwer had appointed former APS Commissioner Lynelle Briggs to conduct an inquiry into alleged breaches by Pezzullo of the APS Code of Conduct.

Acting Home Affairs Secretary Stephanie Foster told a Senate Estimates hearing in October that this was all a “significant shock” and lamented the “sustained and often distressing media reporting” about Pezzullo’s alleged misbehaviour and breaches of professional duty.

However, no information was forthcoming on Lynelle Briggs’ inquiry, with both Foster and APS Commission de Brouwer refusing at Estimates to reveal any details. De Brouwer flatly refused to discuss any “details of specific allegations, lines of inquiry, projected time frames or likely outcomes.”

Briggs took two months to complete her task. Pezzullo was accorded the opportunity to respond to her draft findings and recommendations, and his responses were apparently taken into account in the final report, which was provided to de Brouwer sometime shortly before 23 October.

Matters then moved very quickly, but before they could be finalised, there was one awkward issue that the Government needed to resolve.

The Pezzullo clause

Given what had been reported in the media, it was prima facie likely that Pezzullo would be found to have breached the APS Code of Conduct, and termination of his appointment would be recommended.

However, in a remarkable omission, the Federal Government’s Remuneration Tribunal’s determination of terms and conditions for departmental secretaries had no provision for dealing with a secretary and being sacked for breaches of the APS Code of Conduct. As things stood, if Pezzullo was terminated under section 59(1) of the Public Service Act 1999, he would still be entitled to 12 months of his reference salary of $804,062 as “compensation” for early termination of his appointment.

While Briggs proceeded to finalise her report, there was a scramble to deal with this potentially politically embarrassing problem.

In October, the Tribunal, comprised of then President John Conde and members Heather Zampatti and Stephen Conroy, commenced an urgent review of compensation for loss of office by departmental secretaries.

Advice was obtained from the Australian Government Solicitor and the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, and on 17 November, just as Briggs was completing her report, the Tribunal wrote the departmental secretaries seeking urgent comment on proposed amendments that would remove a secretary’s eligibility for compensation if their appointment was terminated after, either a finding by the APS Commissioner that the secretary had breached the APS Code of Conduct, or, if the National Anti-Corruption Commission had found the secretary had “engaged in corrupt conduct of a serious and systemic nature.”

Three Secretaries responded, and on 22 November, the Tribunal wrote again, “clarifying the intent of the proposed amendments”. The next day, Wednesday, 23 November, the Tribunal held a meeting and approved what could be called the “Pezzullo clause”. There would be no payout.

The Chop

Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, APS Commissioner de Brouwer hand-delivered the Briggs report to Prime Minister Albanese that same day, Wednesday, 23 November. Briggs recommended Pezzullo’s termination, and de Brouwer concurred. Pezzullo was now on the very fast track for ‘the chop’.

The Public Service Act provides that before recommending to the Governor-General to terminate a secretary’s appointment, the Prime Minister must have a report from the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) prepared in consultation with the APS Commissioner.

To that end, de Brouwer provided a copy of Briggs’s report to PM&C Secretary Professor Glyn Davis and to Albanese’s Chief of Staff, Tim Gartrell. First Assistant Secretary of PM&C’s Government Division, Andrew Walter, then rushed to prepare a submission to the Prime Minister and draft Federal Executive Council papers, circulating a draft to Davis and de Brouwer mid-afternoon on Saturday, 25 November. de Brouwer indicated his concurrence in less than an hour. Davis probably did likewise that evening, and the Prime Minister likely gave his approval sometime on Sunday.

Pezzullo’s execution came on the morning of Monday, 27 November, at an Executive Council meeting comprised of Governor-General David Hurley, the Prime Minister and one other Minister (possibly Finance Minister Katy Gallagher, who is also Minister for the Public Service or Home Affairs Minister O’Neill, both having also received a copy of the Briggs report).

Interestingly, the explanatory memorandum that accompanied Albanese’s recommendation to terminate Pezzullo provided no detail other than the briefest of statements that the Home Affairs Secretary had breached the APS Code of Conduct on “numerous occasions” and confirmation that the Public Service Act requirements for termination had been fulfilled.

The Governor-General signed and the Prime Minister counter-signed and Pezzullo’s public service career came to an end.


Pezzullo’s fall was arguably the most dramatic and significant downfall of a departmental secretary in the history of the Australian Federation.

Secretaries have been sacked before, indeed on many occasions, but never before on the grounds of misbehaviour and breach of duty such as those alleged in relation to Pezzullo.

‘The Pez’ had secured a place in history, though not perhaps the one he had dreamed of when he first joined the Defence Department so long ago.

The Government was careful to manage the news of Pezzullo’s demise while parliament sat on 27 November 2023. Albanese put out a very brief media release, confirming the Home Affairs Secretary’s sacking and noting that Pezzullo “fully cooperated with the inquiry”. However, he only did so after Minister O’Neill had finished a press conference on another matter.

The APS Commissioner followed with a slightly longer statement that indicated Briggs had found Pezzullo breached the APS Code of Conduct “on at least 14 occasions in relation to 5 overarching allegations.”. However, there were no further revelations.

De Brouwer acknowledged it was in the public interest for the overarching breach findings to be made public, but beyond that, the public service blinds were pulled down. De Brouwer declared:

No further information regarding the contents of the inquiry will be provided by the Australian Public Service Commission.

Not everyone agreed. On the Parliamentary cross-benches, there was a strong view that the public interest would be better served by a more fulsome disclosure of the Briggs report. The Albanese Government had pledged itself to be more transparent than its predecessor, and this was a test of just how far that commitment would go.

Two days after Pezzullo’s demise, independent Senator David Pocock moved in the Senate “That there be laid on the table by the Minister for the Public Service, by no later than 1 pm on 6 December 2023, the full copy of Ms Lynelle Briggs AO’s final report … following her recent inquiry into possible breaches of the APS Code of Conduct by Mr Michael Pezzullo.”

However, when the motion was put without debate to a vote, Pocock’s initiative was defeated by 31 votes to 17. The Senate cross-bench and Greens were all in favour,

while Labor and the Coalition joined forces to keep the Briggs report secret.

Where the bodies are buried

One might have thought that Prime Minister Albanese and Labor would have seen some political advantage in revealing more of a story that, at least on the face of it, largely concerned bureaucratic and political machinations during the former Coalition Governments of Prime Ministers Turnbull and Morrison.

Yet the Briggs report remains under wraps, neither publicly released nor discreetly “leaked” as an “exclusive” to a carefully chosen journalist.

Labor collateral damage?

In the course of his long career, Pezzullo developed deep links with Labor. In 1993, he joined the staff of then Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and stayed with Evans after Labor’s 1996 defeat. In 1997, he became a senior adviser and then deputy chief of staff to Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, serving in the latter role until Labor’s further defeat in 2001. During that period, Pezzullo first articulated his vision of Home Affairs as a national security super department.

Pezzullo returned to the Defence Department in 2002, quickly moving to the top ranks, later heading the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and eventually leading his bureaucratic empire of Home Affairs. All the while, however, he maintained discrete links with Labor, in opposition and government.

In their exposé, McKenzie and Bachelard briefly refer to Pezzullo’s links with Labor right-wingers, notably former Senator Stephen Conroy, and his intrigues against Labor figures he saw as threats to his notional security empire, notably Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.

Although the Sydney Morning Herald’s primary focus was on Pezzullo’s relationship with Liberal operative Scott Briggs, it’s quite possible his “thousands” of texts also shed rather more light on his relations with Labor figures than has been revealed.

At the time of Pezzullo’s sacking, Labor insiders worried that the former bureaucratic juggernaut “knows where all the bodies are buried”. Some wags jested that “The Pezz” had buried a few of those bureaucratic and political bodies himself.

Yet so far, Pezzullo has maintained a disciplined silence. Perhaps he’s waiting to see whether further developments are yet to play out.

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Further investigations

On 27 November 2023, the day of Pezzullo’s demise, we lodged a Freedom of Information application with the Australian Public Service Commission seeking access to the Briggs inquiry report and any related correspondence from Commissioner de Brouwer to the Prime Minister.

This seemed not an unreasonable request in the public interest and it’s significant that Australia’s FOI law overrides the secrecy provisions of the Public Service Act related to Code of Conduct investigations.

After much delay, the Commission has released a heavily redacted copy of de Brouwer’s letter of transmittal to Albanese. The Commission flatly refused to release the Briggs Report, not one paragraph, not one word.

The reasons include claims that the Briggs report contains information received in confidence as well as legal advice obtained by the government from an external law firm.

It is also asserted that the Briggs report includes information that, if disclosed, “would, or could reasonably be expected to, cause damage to the security, defence or international relations of the Commonwealth.”

APS report on Pezzullo

Law enforcement investigation

However, and perhaps most significantly, the Public Service Commission has also claimed exemption from disclosure of information that,

if revealed, could prejudice the conduct of a law enforcement investigation.

The Commission’s FOI decision-maker has stated, “I am satisfied that disclosure [of the Briggs Report] could reasonably be expected to prejudice the conduct of future investigations and other processes in a particular case … Accordingly, I find that the [Report] is exempt …”.

It remains to be seen whether these exemptions from transparency will hold up under review, at least as far as the entirety of the Briggs report is concerned.

Meantime, however, it appears that the matter of Michael Pezzullo may not yet be fully resolved.

Just what future law enforcement or other investigation might be involved can only be a matter of speculation, though it is of note that the published findings of the Briggs report include a finding that Pezzullo “failed to disclose a conflict of interest”.

Failure to maintain confidentiality

It’s also notable that Pezzullo was found to have “failed to maintain confidentiality of sensitive Government information.”

This in itself is quite remarkable, given that Pezzullo held the highest levels of security clearances, including access to the most sensitive intelligence information, for well over three decades.

He was undoubtedly fully aware of his obligations to safeguard confidential government information. He was a strident advocate for draconian action against public servants who breached those obligations, and also against journalists who published security classified information. Australia’s secrecy laws have been greatly strengthened over the past two decades, in part due to the bureaucratic and political advocacy of the former Home Affairs Secretary.

As for what, if anything might happen next, it would not be appropriate to speculate.

However, the disclosure that there may be future law enforcement action and other processes in relation to “a particular case,” is unlikely to be welcome news to ‘The Pezz’.

Meantime, he’s still an Officer of the Order of Australia. That too is some unfinished business.

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Philip Dorling has some thirty years of experience of high-level political, public policy and media work, much of that at the Australian Parliament.

He has worked in the Australian political environment from most angles, in both the national and state levels of government including as a senior executive; as a senior policy adviser for the Federal Labor Opposition and for cross bench Senators; and as an award-winning journalist in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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