Department of Immigration secretary Mike Pezzullo

Just how poor is the state of staff morale at the beleaguered, incompetent Department of Immigration?

The staff have been without a pay rise for three years as the government has sought to stifle wages growth, leading to repeated rounds of industrial action by staff. Last November, workers rejected Secretary Mike Pezzullo’s latest enterprise bargaining offer by a landslide 82% no vote (Pezzullo himself gets more than $600,000 a year despite a long litany of bungles, debacles and stuff-ups at Immigration being revealed by the Australian National Audit Office both before and during his tenure). The Fair Work Commission is now arbitrating the pay deal at Immigration.

Crikey has now been told that the department has removed questions relating to the performance of the secretary and senior management from the most recent internal staff survey, after previous iterations of the same survey drew savage criticism of Pezzullo and his leadership team. If true, it seems the department would simply prefer to pretend abysmal morale and deep hostility toward management doesn’t exist rather than address it. The department, however, was cagey on whether it had removed questions or not.

“The Department uses surveys, such as the annual Australian Public Service census survey that is currently underway, to inform us about what is working well and should continue, and where additional efforts should be focussed to address staff concerns,” it told Crikey. “The APS Census includes various questions about APS leadership, as determined by the Australian Public Service Commission.”

So, clear as a heavily redacted FOI document.

Since Pezzullo replaced Martin Bowles in October 2014, there’s been massive turnover of the department’s senior management in SES (senior executive service) and EL2 (executive level two) levels and even down to executive level one (EL1), with many new staff brought in from Defence or the Australian Federal Police in what some have dubbed a “militarisation” of the department (Crikey was told that Pezzullo boasted to a recent gathering of the department’s SES staff that he had removed what he termed “care bears” from the department, but that has been emphatically denied). According to insiders, the staff turnover has led to a significant lack of expertise and policy knowledge that has contributed to the dysfunctionality of the department. 

Pezzullo was at Senate estimates this morning and needed extensive protection from Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee chair, Ian Macdonald, to avoid answering questions from Greens senator Nick McKim. McKim wanted to explore what evidence the department had about Immigration minister Peter Dutton’s un-evidenced claim that some kind of pedophile attack on a child led to the Good Friday rampage that saw over 100 shots fired into the Manus Island detention centre by Papua New Guinean troops. Pezzullo insisted he did not have to answer given the question related to departmental advice to the minister.

He also struggled to explain the department’s conflicting claims about the attack. The department issued a statement in the aftermath of the attack that: “there are reports PNG military personnel discharged a weapon into the air during the incident. No-one was injured.” However, the department admitted this morning that nine Manus Island detention centre staff had in fact been injured, and that there were “multiple” discharges of weapons, and that they were into the camp rather than into the air. Pezzullo refused to answer McKim’s questions about why the department’s Correcting The Record media page had not addressed the false claim initially made by the department, insisting the record had been corrected publicly in the interim. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey