Leaked messages from Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo are under investigation for improperly influencing political decisions, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.
*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.
THE NEWS THIS WEEK that the head of the Home Affairs Department, senior public servant Mike Pezzullo, has stood aside pending an investigation into his allegedly partisan communications with Liberal powerbroker, Scott Briggs, is the latest in a series of Right-wing attacks on democracy we’ve witnessed over the last several years.
Pezzullo’s interventions in the form of WhatsApp messages exchanged with Briggs included (successfully) lobbying for a Right-wing minister as head of his department, on the grounds that a moderate would send an invitation to people smugglers to restart their trade.
According to The Guardian, the media union has also called for action on “disturbing” reports that Pezzullo sought to censor journalists and criminalise some forms of national security reporting:
‘He also suggested journalists’ reporting of whistleblower leaks could be criminalised as a form of secondary disclosure...’
Any calls for measures that further discourage whistleblowers and their media allies should be regarded with alarm as a direct attack on our democracy which is, for all its imperfections, the best system of government currently available to us.
Whistleblowers and a media capable of reporting on their disclosures are integral to the adequate functioning of any democracy and Pezzullo’s suggestion, intended to be relayed by Briggs to the Coalition Government at the time, is an attempt to maintain the appearance of a democratic society while destroying from the inside its ability to fully function.
One of Pezullo’s leaked texts as reported in The Age states:
‘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.’
This offers an interesting perspective on former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to (by stealth) secretly acquire five additional portfolios including Home Affairs and Treasury, in a direct undermining of the Westminster system.
Pezzullo has been referred to the Australian Public Sector Commission (APSC) as he appears to have breached the requirement that public servants remain apolitical and independent with direct political engagement, and attempts to politically influence.
This follows hot on the heels of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s attack on the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) in which he raised doubts about how ballots would be counted or excluded in the Voice Referendum on 14 October 2023, stating that the current arrangement “loaded” the system and “skewed” it in favour of a “Yes” vote.
Dutton is a vocal opponent of the Voice, however, his subversive attempt to cast doubt on the voting system implies he lacks the capacity for the robust argument necessary to defend his position with integrity.
His inflammatory comments appeared to be setting the stage for a Trump-like declaration that a “Yes” result was “faked” and the Referendum had been rigged leading to a “stolen” outcome. His comments also appear to be designed to undermine public trust in the AEC. Destroying trust in public institutions is fundamental to the erosion of democracy and a favoured weapon of authoritarian leaders.
We first saw this move to the erosion of trust in democratic institutions under the L-NP Government of John Howard some 21 years ago when Senator Bill Heffernan, in his role as a Cabinet Secretary, launched an appalling homophobic attack on High Court Judge Michael Kirby as part of a personal vendetta. Then Prime Minister Howard and his government treated Heffernan’s attack with “sympathetic toleration”, with the PM refusing to allow Coalition senators to support a Senate motion of apology to Justice Kirby.
This was but one of the Howard Government’s early attacks on supposedly autonomous institutions, as reported at the time in The Age:
‘Under Howard, supposedly autonomous institutions that have displeased the Government – the Federal Court over refugee law, the High Court over native title, the ABC over everything – have been subjected to open political attack.’
These attacks have continued under Coalition governments ever since.
Democracies decline slowly, from the inside. They aren’t destroyed so much as co-opted.
According to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book, How Democracies Die:
Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal,” in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy — making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption, or cleaning up the electoral process.
Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticise the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realise what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.
One of the goals of the Steve Bannon “flooding the zone with shit” tactic is to undermine public trust in democratic institutions to the degree that people no longer have faith in the democratic processes those institutions are designed to uphold. The resulting widespread uncertainty, fear and insecurity is the ideal space in which authoritarianism can flourish.
The Pezzullo revelations are further evidence that democracy in this country is under sustained attack. It would be a mistake to assume that Labor governments will effect a rescue, though they may slow down the erosion.
It might be wise to bear in mind that when Federal Labor assumed government, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese chose to retain Pezzullo's services despite the many indications of where “Dutton’s right-hand man’s” loyalties lay.
*This article is also available on audio here:
- Mike Pezzullo has something to hide
- Mike Pezzullo beats the war drum
- Pezzullo swaps 'dark kaleidoscope' for a rear view mirror
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