PR ‘stuff-up’: Michael Pezzullo defense falls flat, allegedly


Critics of the federal government’s asylum seeker policy had plenty to work with in a statement from the departmental secretary defending detention operations. But the long diatribe from Michael Pezzullo gave them more than they intended.

In a rare public statement from a top mandarin designed to show the department’s sensitivity, it was an insensitive remark about the holocaust that made headlines. In an attempt to “set the record straight”, Pezzullo (pictured) wrote:

“Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to ‘gulags’; suggestions that detention involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany; and persistent suggestions that detention facilities are places of ‘torture’ are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong — and yet they continue to be made in some quarters.”

The secretary was referring to a paper in Australian Psychiatry last month which made the Nazi comparison among numerous complaints around detention practices on Nauru and Manus Island. Of all the attacks on the operations of Australian Border Force this one clearly got under Pezzullo’s skin and he chose to hit back — though why he waited almost three weeks is unclear (a spokesperson for the department didn’t return The Mandarin‘s calls).

The mediasphere quickly picked up on the “allegedly experienced” line as suggesting denialism, forcing the department to make yet another statement late yesterday:

“Any insinuation the department denies the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany are both ridiculous and baseless.

“This has been wilfully taken out of context and reflects deliberate attempts to distort this opinion editorial to create controversy.

“The term ‘allegedly’ was used to counter claims of ‘public numbing and indifference’ towards state abuses in Nazi Germany and the link to immigration detention in Australia. We reject the comparison to immigration detention as offensive and question this being made as a blanket statement — an allegation hence ‘allegedly’ — to describe the attitude of the German population at large during that terrible time.”

Sandi Logan, a former communications head and spokesperson at the department, called it a “foot in mouth” moment.

“Aside from the nuance associated with how to correctly use the adverb ‘allegedly’, especially when talking about the Nazis, this stuff-up is symptomatic of an organisation having so comprehensively drunk the Kool-Aid. It is inured to any sense of reality let alone, in terms of communicating a message, a sense of what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s appropriate,” he told The Mandarin.

‘Reactive, poorly phrased … foot in mouth’

Logan, who spent eight years in the department before his exit in 2013, has become a public critic of the agency under Pezzulo.

“I understand the sincerity in the intent of Mr Pezzulo’s message which was as much for internal consumption — supporting staff doing a very tough job — as it was for external attention,” he said.

“… it’s always reactive, poorly phrased and, as in this instance, foot in mouth.”

“The problem is twofold: I have seen these facilities and they are clearly — almost three years later — designed to snuff out any optimism or hope for those detained, as well as act as an ‘in-your-face’ deterrent to people smugglers and/or others considering arriving in Australia by boat.

“Sadly, Mr Pezzulo has for too long said too little about his department’s operations — a complete Berlin wall of silence — and when he does, it’s always reactive, poorly phrased and, as in this instance, foot in mouth.”

Pezzulo’s lengthy statement defended the department and its staff against accusations of cruelty and illegal acts in detention centres, saying it “does not operate beyond the law” and isn’t an “immoral ‘rogue agency'”:

“For the reputation of my department and its officers, it is crucial that I set the record straight.”

He said ultimately the goal of the department is the same as its critics: “to have no children at all in immigration detention”.

About the author
Premium

The essential resource for effective public sector leaders

Special offer on now: Subscribe for a year to Mandarin Premium, get two outstanding books free.

Get Premium Today