Who is Mike Pezzullo? A clear-eyed, farsighted patriot and civil servant or a shady, powerful and overly active bureaucrat trying to shape policies according to his own worldview?

Even the best writers of political thrillers build their characters mainly along two-dimensional lines; true, it is a bit of a simplification, but, in essence, there are the villeins and heroes fighting it out to the bitter end. Mostly, the heroes triumph, of course. Whilst this sort of fiction sells well on the market, it has little to do with the political process or with the people engaging in politics. In this respect, it doesn’t matter whether we want to talk about politicians or government bureaucrats. Luckily for all of us, real-life characters are much more difficult to place, and one such character who has made headlines in recent days isMike Pezzullo.

Long before his

run-in

with Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick, civil servant Mike Pezzullo had occasionally been exposed to

controversy. Since the Westminster System relies on a politically neutral bureaucracy, it goes with the trade that public servants try to keep as low a profile as possible, and Australia is no exception in this regard. Yet, for Mike Pezzullo, such trivia was never of any importance in the larger scheme of things. But dismissing the actions of the man as self-serving or questioning his motives would be more than just a catastrophic mistake; indeed, one-sided and misplaced criticism of MR. Pezzullo would do the man and his profession a grave injustice. The current secretary to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has been working in the public sector for more than 30 years and has amassed enormous experience as well as expertise in the field of national security, a controversial policy area by default. Beyond that, he has loyally served both sides of politics and enjoys respect and admiration for his drive, his commitment to tackle the most controversial and sensitive policy issues, and he is widely viewed to be a deep thinker in his field of expertise. However, does this mean that a man of his reputation and influence in government should or even can be immune from criticism and accountability? One may even be tempted to take the issue further, questioning the bi-partisan consensus on national security as a whole, perhaps reaching the conclusion that this longstanding political arrangement stifles political debate on this issue; Though, an intellectual reckoning of sorts on these problematic aspects of policy making in Australia is so urgently needed.

Back in 2009, the Australian government published its

Whitepaper on Defence

whose principle author was Mike Pezzullo; Despite their initial appearance, Whitepapers, particularly those on defence matters, are inherentlypolitical documents. The 2009 document was remarkable in one particular respect, raising the issue of growing Chinese influence in the region for the first time, attempting to assess the geopolitical implications for Australia. If, as the paper subtly suggested, Australia were to remain a middle-power, the military capabilities of the country would have to be restructured. In order to achieve this, the authors of the paper felt compelled to think well beyond 2030. Whilst the efforts put into this policy paper are commendable, it must be remembered that there was no agreement on the way Chinese influence should be seen in the region overall, and it was unclear to what extent Australia could rely on the US, since its influence was seen to be waining. The ability of Australia to count on its American ally was questioned in the Whitepaper, and, as can be easily fathomed, led to enormous controversy. Yet, the strategic challenges raised back in 2009 have by no means disappeared and remain hotly

contested even today, particularly since the US keeps sending conflicting signals to its allies and foes alike; the US position with regards to China shifts periodically between acquiescence and assertiveness, making it harder for allies such as Australia to develop any broad policy framework in its dealings with China.

According to

Professor Hugh White

who specializes in Strategic Studies at the Australian National University (ANU), the Whitepaper was an important document for recognizing that Australia’s geopolitical circumstances were changing considerably, but, so he believed, the document fell short in terms of policy prescriptions, being relatively vague on what shape any comprehensive restructuring and repositioning of the Australian military would have to take. Furthermore, he made the point that, for all its bravery and foresight, the paper breaks with financial transparency in the defence portfolio. After all, policy prescriptions, even if endorsed by ministers as a matter of principle, can neither be implemented nor advocated for without any proper costings. This document, so White lamented, said literally nothing about the costs involved, and, in his view, realizing the ambitious agenda set forth in the Whitepaper would be phenomenally expensive.

For

Professor John Blaxland

who specializes in National Security and Intelligence Studies Mike Pezzullo must be given credit for trying to resolve policy issues most politicians and government bureaucrats would rather run away from. But he has also been

critical of the

home affairs construct; such a largely inflated department may well blur the lines of accountability. These are primarily structural problems, however, and blaming them on Pezzullo as an individual will do precious little to address the political challenges confronting the emerging Australian security state.

Thus, returning to our initial question, who now is Mike Pezzullo? Well, he is more than your average civil servant and departmental secretary. But he is also a deep thinker, seriously engaged in all issues confronting Australia’s national security, and, certainly, he is a patriot, though not an unproblematic one. Whenever civil servants are the subject of controversy and occasionally are being scapegoated by politicians, it is worth bearing in mind that politicians are the ones accountable for policy decisions not the civil servants. If many ordinary politicians lack the resolve or faculties to engage MR. Pezzullo intellectually, it is hardly his fault. Having followed recent legislation in this particular area, you can be forgiven for wondering to what extent many backbenchers are actually aware of the sort of legislation they are passing. This is concerning because we are dealing with political issues here, and they will be profoundly consequential in the long run.

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