30 November 2022

The Constitution got it right, Pezzullo said so

| Chris Johnson
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Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo says the nation is in safe hands. Photo: James Coleman.

Reasonable minds run Australia’s democracy whoever is in power and that’s all thanks to the Constitution and a responsible public service, according to Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo.

The powerful and enigmatic departmental boss had his audience captivated at a recent Institute of Public Administration Australia event in Canberra by taking them on an historical journey to prove his thesis that the nation is in safe hands.

“Supervised and accountable, responsible government was bequeathed to us in the Constitution, not by hands bloodied in English fields, but by reasonable minds working to inscribe the legacy of that contest onto an unstained parchment,” he said.

The secretary described as prophetic the authors of the Constitution who said that responsible government would see the nationalisation of the people of the Commonwealth and promote the concentration of executive control in the House of Representatives.

“The framers did not inscribe the mechanics of responsibility into the text of the Constitution — an omission that was quite deliberate,” he said.

“They concerned themselves instead with how best to reconcile the notion of responsible government within a federation, which will see the establishment of the cohesive senate.”

Drafters of the Constitution, Mr Pezzullo said, insisted that the government should be run by elected politicians, some of whom would be ministers.

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Executive government developed by those first elected MPs would have departments as its foundation but with the oversight of ministers.

“By making ministers of state servants of the Crown appointed at the latter’s pleasure but responsible to the people through parliament, the institution of responsible government was the first attempt in history to create the structural buckle between a long-standing administrative form, which is to say departments headed by ministers conducting the king’s business, with democratic self-government,” Mr Pezzullo said.

“This was a new structure of politics which, for the first time in history, created the space and the means for the popular control of the executive power.”

Mr Pezzullo’s eloquent way with words often attracts attention, due both to the historical context he lends to his speeches and his wont to push boundaries most public servants won’t go near.

His Anzac Day message to staff, which was before this year’s federal election, became instantly controversial as it veered out of his portfolio area and began talking of war.

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“Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war,” Mr Pezzullo said in April.

“War might well be folly, but the greater folly is to wish away the curse by refusing to give it thought and attention, as if in so doing, war might leave us be, forgetting us perhaps.”

There was much speculation after the election that the new Labor Government would replace him, but he has proved to be highly skilled and influential and remains a key figure of the bureaucracy.

This most recent commentary, however, stuck to a theme of how accountable government hasn’t happened in Australia by mistake. It was by design. And part of that design was limiting the role of a monarchy located on the other side of the world.

“Under responsible government, the sovereign does not act, saving the rare use of reserve powers,” he said.

“The reason for this? Well, the Crown is under no superior who could bring it to account.”

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