One of the nation’s most powerful public servants Mike Pezzullo has been asked to stand aside pending an inquiry into bombshell leaked text messages where he secretly denigrated political leaders and journalists, including Project host Waleed Aly.
New text messages that he exchanged with Liberal powerbroker Scott Briggs have emerged today, revealing the senior public servant secretly pushing for powers to censor the media’s reporting of national security issues and badmouthing broadcasters and journalists.
Nine has not disclosed how the text messages were obtained through “a third party” but insisted it was legal.
In the texts he criticises a range of political leaders including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Defence Minister Marise Payne and Attorney-General George Brandis.
Mr Briggs has confirmed the content of the texts, stressing the conversations on encrypted apps were “private.”
Earlier, Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil announced an inquiry by the Australian Public Service Commissioner into Pezzullo’s behaviour, but did not immediately stand him down.
“I am aware of reports regarding communications between Mr Michael Pezzullo and Mr Scott Briggs,” O’Neil said in a statement.
“Last night I referred this matter to the Australian Public Service Commissioner, Dr Gordon de Brouwer.”
News.com.au does not suggest any of the text exchanges were corrupt or illegal, only that they were exchanged and that Mr Pezzullo’s conduct is now being investigated.
Former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton defended Mr Pezzullo, telling reporters he had always found him to be a “thoroughly professional” bureaucrat.
“He conducted himself in a thoroughly professional way in my dealings with him, and that was my experience of dealing with Mr Pezzullo,’’ Mr Dutton said.
“If the prime minister doesn’t have confidence in Mr Pezzullo, he should say so. This is an issue for the government to work out.”
Shortly afterwards, Mr Albanese held a press conference where he revealed that Mr Pezzullo had been asked to stand aside pending the inquiry.
“He has agreed to stand aside, that action is appropriate, we will await the findings of the investigation which we will expedite,’ Mr Albanese said.
Federal cabinet is meeting today in Adelaide and Mr Albanese added that any independent inquiry requires a “full and proper disclosure”.
In the new text messages, Mr Pezzullo denigrates political leaders including Julie Bishop and Marise Payne and shows contempt for several well-known media figures, praising Scott Morrison for putting The Project host Waleed Aly “in his place”.
He described a female reporter Primrose Riordan as a “silly journalist”, veteran ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy as “a sneering, cynical hack,” and referred to broadcaster Alan Jones’ view that the Murugappan family of Biloela should be allowed to stay in Australia as a “rant”.
In one exchange he suggests that then Defence Minister Marise Payne should have intervened over a story that journalist Annika Smethurst wrote.
“Payne is completely ineffectual,” Pezzullo wrote to Briggs. “She could have killed the story yesterday.”
“She is useless,” Briggs agreed.
“The shame of it is that Payne could have turned it around yesterday had she engaged,” wrote Pezzullo.
“I could have turned it into a great story for the Government … once Smethurst had the yarn she could have been turned.”
In 2019, the Australian Federal Police – which is part of the Home Affairs portfolio but was not under Pezzullo’s operational command – raided Smethurst’s home.
The police went through her bookcases, kitchen and bedroom, and confiscated her electronic devices.
Mr Pezzullo then suggests voters would support a crackdown on the media, suggesting the “punters are sick of the chaos.”
“Solution is elegant and can be played out sequentially over coming months – purposefully and steadily without a sense of crisis and reaction. We need to fix this over the medium term. A prosecution … would see WWIII break out”.
In a series of text messages revealed by the Nine newspapers, Mr Pezzullo lobbied for the then prime minister Scott Morrison to introduce a system of “D-Notices” – to pressure media organisations not to publish stories deemed damaging to national security.
D Notices were used in Australia until the 1980s to warn the media not to publish on questions deemed to infringe on national security.
At one point, Mr Pezzullo then badmouthed Smethurst to her colleagues, forwarding on his messages to Briggs.
“I respect your journalism but I am calling foul on your commentary on the AFP warrant on Smethurst,” Pezzullo wrote, forwarding the message to Briggs.
“You cannot possibly defend so-called ‘public interest journalism’ which is entirely false, and where no evidence of wrongdoing is exposed … Why do I know this to be false? Because I wrote the proposal and sent it to Defence.”
He then criticised Smethurst: “Why do you think her handler picked her, rather than say an experienced national security journalist. Think about it.”