Department of Immigration

Mike Pezzullo

Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo has fired off an eccentric 1900-word letter to his senior executive service (SES) staff laying out his “general leadership philosophy” and urging them to embrace it. “It is important that we are aligned in terms of how to lead,” he tells his senior staff in a document forwarded to Crikey. 

Pezzullo’s “philosophy” is a mixture of management consultant cliches, bureaucratese and fleeting acknowledgements that his department has been regularly found to be one of the least competent agencies in the Commonwealth. “I expect you to be authentically optimistic,” he tells the managers of a department that has: been criticised over and over across a wide range of issues by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO); been found to mismanaged tender process for billion-dollar contracts; overseen suicides and deaths; and tried to cover up the abuse of women and children in detention camps. “Your task is to interpret the external reality of your team and to show them the way forward,” he tells them.

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At times, the secretary lapses into almost parodic cut-and-pastes from APS management courses of the kind public servants routinely have inflicted on them

Crystallise your choices, pare your options and focus on those key actions that will make the most effective difference… do not hesitate to spring into action when decisive intervention is required. Leaders bring a comprehensive conception to plans and activities… I expect you to calculate risk in order to mitigate threats and to take advantage of opportunities. In doing this, gather new partners – in industry, the general community, in other jurisdictions, and internationally.

Occasionally, he has some personal organisation tips. “Leaders are personally organised and efficient, and attentive to sound administration and management for his SES staff, over 40 of whom are acting appointments. By being personally well organised and prepared, you will reduce the ‘noise’ of your job and create as much space as possible to lead strategically and with purpose. Attention to detail, for instance in terms of sound record keeping, issuing clear written directions, reading papers ahead of key decisions and so on, are important aides to management.” This, at least, might be a recognition that Home Affairs has been criticised for poor record-keeping so often it’s now a macro on the ANAO’s word processing software. For example, this is from a June audit on the merger of Immigration and Customs:

The audit found that the department did not maintain adequate records of the integration process. This finding repeats the outcomes of a substantial number of audits and reviews going back to 2005. The department’s own assessment is that its records and information management is in a critically poor state. The problems and their solutions are known to the department, and it has an action plan to address them, although numerous previous attempts to do so have not been successful.

Most bizarre was Pezzullo’s statement “our portfolio is sometimes seen as a ‘behemoth’ which puts at risk liberty and personal freedom. You and I know that not to be true. To the contrary, we are dedicated to the proposition that without our concerted efforts in aid of economic prosperity, social cohesion, and an open society, and to the security of our nation and its people, our hard-won liberties and freedoms will be put at risk”. This from the man who has pushed recently to give power defence intelligence agency Australian Signals Directorate to target Australians, for the AFP to be able to arbitrarily stop people and demand ID in airports, in the department that was forced to pay $70 million in compensation to asylum seekers it had falsely imprisoned, was found by the ANAO to have engaged in unlawful searches and which unlawfully detained Australians in 2016 and 2017.

Click to read the full letter

Famously, Home Affairs (then simply the Immigration Department) unlawfully detained Vivian Solon and Cornelia Rau during the Howard years, causing a major scandal that led to the Palmer Report. To this day, Home Affairs’ website has a page dedicated to explaining how it has dramatically improved its internal processes to prevent such things happening again. Home Affairs under Pezzullo repeated its Howard-era mistake of detaining people it had no right to detain — which makes this comment from “Papers Please” Pezzullo all the more ironic:

Knowledge of history, in its fullest sense, will give you a broad perspective, especially during what you might feel to be ‘the darkest hour’ – except, it almost most certainly will not be. History will be your lamp on these occasions, illuminating past episodes and rhythms which will suggest that we have faced similar challenges before now, and will do so again until the end of time.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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