Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo has no time for ‘inter-agency jealousies’


The law isn’t the main barrier to co-operation between public service agencies, says Michael Pezzullo, but “hidebound, reactionary” attitudes. A new Department of Home Affairs will “embed” itself into supply chains, he explained.

Michael Pezzullo envisions the new Department of Home Affairs reaching into just about every area of the Australian economy and society, leaning on public and private sector organisations alike for co-operation.

Home Affairs will obviously need to work with other agencies outside the new portfolio sometimes, such as the Department of Health if there was a pandemic, and Pezzullo (pictured) made it clear on Friday that he doesn’t want bureaucratic rivalries or risk aversion to get in the way of his grand new mission.

He told a Department of Agriculture and Water Resources staffer that it was not usually the law that stood in the way of information sharing between different parts of the public service, following his first public speech about Home Affairs on Friday afternoon. (An audio recording of the speech and the discussion after is below.)

Pezzullo said that in his experience of the public service, it was rarely legal prohibitions that prevented agencies sharing information. “But there’s nearly always cultural practice, norms, inter-agency jealousies, pettiness — you know, Bob in agency A has never been able to get on with Betty in agency B so damn it, that information is not going to transferred,” he said.

He then launched into an anecdote from the Gulf War, when he was a “‘very junior policy officer” with the Department of Defence, working in a small team to negotiate a way to get Australian military personnel access to data sourced from secret United States satellites.

Some public servants suggested that was not “legally doable” but in the end, an arrangement was reached after “persistent pushing back” from a team including Angus Houston, who went on to become chief of the ADF.

In Pezzullo’s view it was “hidebound, reactionary, conservative, risk-averse, legalistic attitudes” on the part of some bureaucrats that stood in the way, while others were focused on the outcome they wanted to achieve.

He described this experience as an exercise in “cutting through all those assumed prohibitions” — he allowed that sometimes public servants came up against clear “black-letter law” forbidding information sharing in some circumstances, but said in his experience that was “almost inevitably” the exception.

The new Home Affairs chief added that those questioning the legalities had their reasons and were not being “malicious or evil” but said they were “too risk-averse” in his view. Pezzullo has made it clear he prefers a “commonwealth of ideas” to an “empire of rules” in a previous speech.

The looming machinery-of-government change must be something of a dream come true for the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which will soon evolve into the new department that he has reportedly been advising political leaders to establish since the 1990s, when he was deputy chief of staff to former Labor leader Kim Beazley.

He said on Friday he sees his new department “in effect, acting as the chief security officer function of the nation” and answered questions from the private sector audience about potential risks to the success of the enterprise, as well as cultural change.

He told the business lunch that Home Affairs portfolio agencies would seek to “embed” themselves into supply chains rather than present separate regulatory hurdles for business. He imagines a “a public-private partnership model between Home Affairs and its component agencies and virtually every sector” of the economy and society, where companies give him access to data.

“I can’t think of a sector of Australian society [that Home Affairs would not be involved with],” he said.

Pezzullo wants to make security and facilitation of trade and travel two sides of one coin, but there is certainly a view in the private sector that heightened security has slowed down Australian visa processing, for example, in recent years.

“What we need to do is sort of break apart the functions of the state, and actually embed them, partner with [private industry] and in some cases invisibly embed them into things like supply chains, airport exit and entry, the cruise ship industry — and frankly that is to the benefit of the security side of the mission,” he said.

He argued that improving facilitation and increasing security could be accomplished at the same time through “partnering with the private sector to have assured and secure access to data” as DIBP currently does with air cargo.

He confirmed the DIBP would absorb parts of the Attorney General’s Department and a couple of others during the process, in “generally small numbers”, and that the cultural “re-engineering of Customs” he began in late 2012 as head of the former agency would continue, as it has through the merger of Customs and Immigration.

He explained this was an effort to tackle “very significant integrity issues” after the arrest of eight officers, with efforts to “get rid of the misogyny and the insularity” in the border protection agency. The risk of corruption in the ranks is clearly an ongoing challenge.

Pezzullo acknowledged the Immigration-Customs integration process was “bracing for both sides of that transaction”, and that the ongoing culture change project continues.

The mega-department will add new policy and strategy functions, and staff related to transport security and emergency management, to its current operations such as processing visas and checking mail and cargo.

“How you sort of gel that together and say, yep, look, it’s a very diverse business but it’s also one business, one team; that’s going to be a challenge,” said Pezzullo.