One of the most powerful public servants in Australia has been exposed to badmouthing political leaders including Julie Bishop and Marise Payne and angling for the promotion of “right-wingers” including Peter Dutton in bombshell private text messages.
Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo’s extraordinary private musings with Liberal Party insider Scott Briggs include revelations that he almost “had a heart attack” about the idea of the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop becoming Liberal leader.
Mr Briggs is businessman and former vice-president of the NSW Liberals, and was a close confidant of former prime minister Scott Morrison.
In the messages, Mr Pezzullo mocks Ms Bishop for appearing in a fashion shoot with TV personality Kerri-Anne Kennerley.
“Sorry. She has agency and autonomy. I get it. But how does this advance the cause of strong, independent policy or business relevant women?,’’ he wrote.
He describes then Defence Minister Marise Payne as “completely ineffectual” and texts: “Marise is a problem!”
The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes, who revealed the extraordinary cache of messages on Sunday night, said it learned of the messages and their content via a third party who obtained lawful access to them
Using encrypted messaging apps WhatsApp and Signal, Mr Pezzullo unloaded on politicians he didn’t like including the former Attorney-General George Brandis who did not agree with Pezzullo’s plan to form a super-portfolio of Home Affairs.
News.com.au has texted Mr Pezzullo for comment. He did not respond.
In a statement, the Department of Home Affairs said it had “long standing policies in place to address Conflicts of Interest, which apply to all employees, including the Secretary.”
“The Department is committed to continued transparency and accountability in all its endeavours. Any allegations, accompanied by any relevant evidence, should be referred to the appropriate authorities,’’ it said.
News.com.au does not suggest any of the exchanges are corrupt or illegal.
Mr Briggs confirmed the discussions and said the “private” relationship was always formally disclosed as required
“I can confirm that I have had communications with Mike Pezzullo over a long period of time, commencing in 2016 and continuing through to the present. The nature of those communications were always private matters,’’ he said.
“The matters raised never related to any procurement and I made sure that my relationship with Pezzullo was always formally disclosed as required. I also complied with any direction received from DHA (Department of Home Affairs) in relation to those communications.”
Mr Pezzullo also describes another female Labor politician, Kristina Keneally as looking “quite unhinged” in her challenge for the Liberal-held seat of Bennelong.
In other messages he suggests then Prime Minister should “get rid” of Christopher Pyne and feared that George Brandis would stay on in the portfolio and sends an applause emoji when he resigns.
He also boasts of efforts to make press freedom reforms a “dead duck” and criticises prominent journalists.
The conversations have been compared with the US drama “House of Cards” by one of the nation’s leading constitutional lawyers George Williams and slammed by former Attorney-General George Brandis.
“I have never seen anything like this. I was shocked,’’ Mr Williams said.
“It left me very uneasy. Given how we expect our Westminster system to operate. It’s a pattern of conduct.”
On the eve of the 2018 Liberal Party leadership change, Mr Pezzullo advises Mr Briggs who should be the new minister.
“I don’t wish to interfere but you won’t be surprised to hear that in the event of ScoMo [Scott Morrison] getting up I would like to see Dutton come back to HA [Home Affairs],’’ he writes in one exchange.
“No reason for him to stay on the backbench that I can see,” Pezzullo wrote at 9.40pm on the night before the leadership spill against Turnbull in August 2018.
“I agree,” Briggs responded.
In another message, he urges the appointment of right-wingers to the Home Affairs portfolio.
“If Dutton is out, give me (Angus) Taylor or (Alan) Tudge”.
“You need a right winger in there – people smugglers will be watching,’’ he said.
“Please feed that in [to Morrison and Turnbull],” Pezzullo advised.