The back story on how mandarin Michael Pezzullo, a history-obsessed scholar, made his way to the top of the national security food chain in Canberra.
It is not every day that a public message marking Anzac Day from a department secretary causes a stir. But when Michael (Mike) Pezzullo, one of the most powerful national security leaders in Australia, deploys language like “the drums of war” are beating and warns that Australia must be prepared to “send off, yet again, our warriors to fight” in copy published to the Home Affairs website — ears prick.
Emotive communiques of this kind are hardly common fare for senior public servant messaging — so is this some kind of poetic indulgence or a flag that Pezzullo’s political masters have moved him to wave?
Speaking to The Mandarin about the implications of the secretary’s speech, ANU Professor Professor John Blaxland said Pezzullo’s ‘bleak’ characterisation echoed a sentiment widely held within Australia’s top national security circles about the looming threat of China. The secretary’s speech did not explicitly mention China but aligns with recent comments made by his former boss, Peter Dutton, that a conflict with Beijing over Taiwan ‘should not be discounted’.
“It’s classic Mike Pezzullo: quoting generals and speaking in Manichean terms,” Professor Blaxland says.
“He sees things in dark colours anyway but he is echoing a sentiment that is resonating in the national security space in Canberra.”
Barely a week after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan, Pezzullo’s message has people on edge. The chatter among circles in Canberra is that he is positioning himself as the best pick for Defence secretary in anticipation of a looming reshuffle among top bureaucrats.
Blaxland, an international security & intelligence studies expert, adds that the modern challenges facing Australia’s national security include the need to be more self-reliant, the size and capability of our national defence force, as well as China’s military growth and increasing coercion around the world. These factors make the secretary’s speech pertinent, he says, despite obvious indications that the speech is also Pezzullo posturing to join former Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton in his new portfolio of Defence.
“Mike’s […] heavily invested in Defence and obviously there are strong inklings that he’s angling for a return as secretary when the next round of musical secretarial chairs takes place, probably in about September this year,” Professor Blaxland says.
“While Mike’s posturing — I’m not at all playing down the fact that he’s posturing to get the gang back together in Defence — it’s not just that. People who write [the speech] off in those terms misunderstand Mike’s thinking and why what he’s saying is so compelling.”
So what do we know about the man, Pezzullo, that might shed some light on what’s really going on?
Family life: A migrant story of sacrifice, fortitude and tragedy
Australian-born Pezzullo is the eldest of three sons to migrants from rural Campania in Italy. He was a high academic achiever, obsessed (by his own description) with military history and the intricacies of strategic warfare.
Catholicism was also a feature of Pezzullo’s earlier years. He was raised and schooled in the Catholic faith — although he now worships at an Anglican Church with his wife Lynne, who was raised in a Protestant denomination. Pezzullo is known to couch his perspective in Manichean terms, and his religious inclinations emerge when he offers a view on whether something is good or evil.
In a speech delivered at ANU last year, Pezzullo (who said his wife helped him prepare the presentation) referred to acts of God as being among the modern threats facing society.
“A view of security which is concerned exclusively with the administration of violence does not assist us to prepare for other dilemmas which might impinge on civil peace, such as a global pandemic or a potentially catastrophic geomagnetic storm, which could will occur at a scale which would render most electrified technologies inoperable.
“Who is the attacker in that latter instance, the sun, nature, or perhaps God Himself?”
Education and the ability to speak English well were cornerstones of family life in the Pezzullo household (the family spoke a mixture of Italian and English) — his parents had limited education and spent their lifetimes holding down two or three jobs at once.
Pezzullo’s parents hoped for a different future for their children. It was the very reason they left post-war Italy in 1960.
When Pezzullo was 18, the family was struck by tragedy when his father died from suicide. He has spoken of his distress watching the decline of a proud, strong man, in part, due to what Pezzullo describes as the inadequacies of psychiatric institutions in 1980s Australia.
The rise and rise of top bureaucrat and political adviser
From as young as 10, Pezzullo has recollections of playing with toy soldiers by configuring them for battle. He excelled at school, finding his passion studying European history and historiography at the University of Sydney.
In 1987 Pezzullo joined the Department of Defence as a graduate, on the advice of his mentor and honours supervisor Richard Bosworth, who saw an academic career in history as limiting for his bright protege. The intelligence seems to have worked out well for the young Pezzullo, because he has successfully manoeuvred his way — with almost tactical precision — through the ranks to the top of Australia’s national security organisations. Within five years he was working for the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (PM&C).
A string of coveted senior mandarin positions feature on his CV, with deep experience across the departments of Defence, Immigration and Border Protection, and PM&C. Pezzullo was also appointed as the first as CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (during Pezzullo’s tenure, his brother Fabio — a customs officer — was fined for perjuring himself before a corruption watchdog).
In September of 2017 Pezzullo was appointed by the Turnbull government to secretary of the mega-department of Home Affairs. At the time of the announcement, it was no secret that he was a forerunner for the role, having advocated for the creation of a Home Affairs portfolio in a national security policy paper for Labor in 2001.
The truth is, Pezzullo was powerful long before he stepped up to lead Home Affairs. He is one of those rare bureaucrats who has moved seamlessly from advising politicians to leading departments. Last year he was awarded an Order of Australia for his ‘distinguished public administration service in national security, border control and immigration’.
Pezzullo has worked for Labor’s Gareth Evans (when he was foreign minister) and Kim Beazley (when he was Labor opposition leader). For a profile piece published by The Sydney Morning Herald in 2017, Pezzullo spoke of a personal and professional bond he shared with both men but rejected the view that he was a sophisticated ‘political animal’.
On working as Beazley’s deputy chief of staff, he has boasted about their mutual interest in military history and technologies. And on his recruitment to Evans’ foreign minister’s office, Pezzullo dismissively says that it used to be commonplace to appoint public servants to the role of what was once known as a ‘private secretary’ to the foreign minister’s office.
A pragmatic public servant
After Labor lost the 2001 election, Pezzullo returned to the Department of Defence. As deputy secretary for strategy within the department, he was the principal author of the 2009 Defence white paper. At the time, the document was criticised by some as being too ‘hawkish’ with respect to China.
An extraordinary publication of government cables obtained by WikiLeaks later revealed that Pezzullo had told US diplomats he was given a ‘dressing down’ by representatives from Beijing over the Defence white paper document. He also allegedly refused to entertain requests from China to water the document down.
Despite the controversy (under a Rudd government), Pezzullo has described his efforts on the Defence white paper as the most fulfilling experience of his public service career in ‘policy and intellectual terms’.
Later, during Tony Abbot’s time as prime minister, Pezzullo was given a key role in executing the mission of Operation Sovereign Borders to ‘stop the boats’.
What Pezzullo enjoys from public service, he says, is rising to meet the requirements of an assignment — be it strategic or operational, success is realised in ‘how you harness a dozen or more agencies to execute the plan’. This is the work of what he describes as being a ‘responsive public servant’ — to be able to effect and manage change, no matter the policy position.