Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo’s job has become untenable, with revelations he used his close relationship with Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs to influence appointments and policy under former Coalition governments.
Mr Pezzullo has stood aside and is under official investigation. Region can also reveal that Mr Briggs’s political ambitions may have been thwarted by the news.
In what appears to be well beyond the bounds of the Westminster system, Mr Pezzullo acted outside his remit as a senior public servant and has now been referred to Australian Public Service Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer.
Nine News has reported that Mr Pezzullo allegedly sent more than 1000 encrypted messages over more than five years to influential NSW Liberal figure Scott Briggs.
The leaked texts often urged Mr Briggs to use his close relationships with former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison to ensure conservative ministers were appointed to key portfolios – including in Mr Pezzullo’s own areas of responsibility.
Mr Pezzullo’s texts praise Peter Dutton during the 2018 Liberal leadership spill, telling Mr Briggs that if he lost the leadership contest he would like to see “Dutton come back to HA [Home Affairs]” and there was no reason for him to “stay on the backbench that I can see”.
“You need a right winger in there – people smugglers will be watching… please feed that in.”
Mr Briggs’s return texts agree with Mr Pezzullo.
Many of the department secretary’s messages appear to be anything other than the apolitical nature required of public servants; instead, being blatant attempts to manipulate government outcomes, in stark breach of the APS Code of Conduct.
From the sidelines, the texts tried to influence appointments of the Attorney-General and the Defence Minister and were critical of then cabinet ministers Julie Bishop, George Brandis and Marise Payne.
They are also critical of a free press, senate estimates, and other parliamentary processes.
On Monday (25 September), Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil issued a statement saying: “I am aware of reporting regarding communications between Mr Michael Pezzullo and Mr Scott Briggs. Last night, I referred this matter to the Australian Public Service Commissioner, Dr Gordon de Brouwer.”
In response to questions from Region, the APSC said: “The Australian Public Service Commission takes referrals seriously.
“At this early stage, it would be inappropriate to provide commentary that preempts any processes.”
Former APS commissioner Lynelle Briggs will be conducting the inquiry.
Stephanie Foster will act as the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs.
Mr Briggs is a lobbyist with DPG Advisory and has held numerous party positions with the NSW Liberals with ambitions for greater leadership roles.
Mr Briggs was on track to be the next state director of the NSW Liberals, replacing incumbent Chris Stone who is scheduled to step down in November.
But with the revelations of his covert involvement with a senior public servant, those aspirations appear to be dashed.
“Scott Briggs is the biggest loser in this whole affair,” a senior Liberal Party source told Region.
“He was the raging hot favourite to be the next state director for NSW, with an announcement scheduled for October.
“But he can kiss that goodbye if these revelations are true that he has been so entwined in undermining our political system through highly inappropriate dealings with a high-ranking public servant.”
Mr Briggs reportedly confirmed he “had communications with Mr Pezzullo over a long period of time” until the present, but they were “always private matters”.
With Labor’s win in last year’s federal election, it was widely thought that Mr Pezzullo, first appointed to Home Affairs by the Coalition in 2017, would be a victim of machinery of government changes, but Prime Minister Anthony Albanese retained him. That is now likely to change.