Politicising Intelligence: Dutton, Pezzullo and the Department of Home Affairs

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Department of Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo and Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton (images via en.wikipedia.org).

Dr Binoy Kampmark discusses the "unsettling" power overreach of the newly devised super ministry, the Department of Home Affairs, overseen by Peter Dutton and Michael Pezzullo. 

BE WARY of the police state operative, the desk job authoritarian — be especially wary of the political figures endorsing such characters, those supposed saviours from inflated threats and cardboard demons. 

This is the dilemma Australian bureaucrats face across a range of departments in Canberra, notably those cannibalised in the creation of the Department of Home Affairs, the remodelled variant of the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio. Those affected by the process hail from the Attorney-General’s DepartmentInfrastructure and Regional Development and Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The Saturday Paper's Karen Middleton revealed something that was as surprising as the next sunrise. ASIO officials are said to have been tetchy about the whole business of centralised power — a point that seemed to eek its way in a secret speech delivered by the former Australian Attorney-General, George Brandis. Brandis, according to Middleton, claimed the creation of the department to be “unsettling” for the agency, though expressed confidence that the changes would be implemented without too much fuss.

A sense of how wrong this perception is can already be seen by efforts on the part of the Department of Home Affairs to procure additional staff and bypass mandatory staff caps. This has effectively led to the employment of a “shadow workforce” comprising 1,415 “non-consultant full-time” workers. Supplementary work is also provided by 193 consultants. The Ministry, in other words, is booming with purpose and ensuring that it hires services from those who are likely to agree with it.    

Brandis alludes to a further implication of the prospect of cooking the intelligence books. With hirelings dedicated to finding terrors and menaces, efforts to supply sober intelligence are doomed. 

Dutton does not come in for specific mention in the address. He is the spectral menace — the political figure who will, when necessary, manifest himself beyond dark apparition. Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Michael Pezzullo does, however, trouble the former Attorney General. He is a functionary of extreme zeal, personal self-promotion and evidently keen to push a world of hideous gloom and inevitable loss. Australia, he insists, must be saved from it.

According to The Saturday Paper:

'The tone and content of Pezzullo’s October 17 speech to a Canberra conference of the Trans-Tasman Business Circle alarmed some officials, with its reference to globalisation having created a “dark universe” which must be attacked to avoid “the end of days”.'

It should provide citizens with some comfort that Brandis was not entirely receptive to the national security agenda, even if collective Cabinet responsibility seems to have gagged him. Accordingly, this outwardly political mute revealed in his secret speech "an obvious political tension” between an intelligence service pegged to the rule of law and the broadly violent vision Pezzullo had outlined last year.

Pezzullo’s own words seem to channel the caricatured crafting of the CIA director, Mike Pompeo. Pompeo sees nightmares in the shadows multiplying like pathogens; Pezzullo, in his October 17 speech to the Trans-Tasman Business Circle, was considerably apocalyptic about the modern era, laced with laughable references to AC/DC’s 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap' and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien. A simplified moral universe is always necessary for diminishing human liberties and enlisting uncritical recruits.

Pezzullo latches on a term that academics have done to a well-deserved death: globalisation. Globalisation mad, globalisation run wild. (This, from a servant of a Government positively gaga for free market fancies.) 

His speech referred to:

“The globalisation of terror, crime, and indeed evil, is becoming much more manifest and apparent to people.” 

The idea of “terror” had lost its territorial base, able to

 ... strike you from anywhere on the globe. 

Global networks of crime and exploitation, and the enablement of crime and exploitation, is becoming more apparent. There are dark markets for hacking, money laundering, cryptocurrency movement, assumed identities for criminals, terrorists, child exploitation perpetrators and others.

Pezzullo and Dutton harbour a confused view about the protection of liberty. To ensure its strength, a degree of state confusion and muddling is necessary. But security assumes the force of a sledgehammer, centralised and directed against citizen and enemy alike. 

Intoned Pezzullo before his audience:

"You need a focused effort, you need to ensure unity of purpose and clarity of direction, and critically, in this day and age, you need a single accountable minister under the Prime Minister and Cabinet, at the apex of the entire security apparatus, supported by the department of state whose responsibilities mirror that minister and can support he or she."

What cannot be regulated must be eliminated — this is the mantra from the secretary of a department that should be trimmed rather than unleashed:  

“Smashing the dark web. Those are the kind of verbs that we’re going to have to start to introduce.”

This a sweeping appraisal of all things bad on the internet suggests the confusion under which officials within the department seem to be labouring under. On the one hand, there are networks and supply chains. But these cannot be permitted to exist in the foreboding lands of the dark web. A “smashed” web would just as well put paid to a vast array of civil liberties.

Such language of damnation, a point drawn out in Brandis’ circumspect speech, should trouble any entity charged with abiding by the rule of law.  That this is now coming out is no accident: the campaign against the Home Affairs Department will be something waged from without – and ultimately, within – the corridors of Canberra.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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