You graduate from Marist Brothers College, Kogarah, in 1981 with marks that put you in the top 1% of the state. Your name is published in the newspaper as one of the “cream of the HSC crop”.
Your parents, Italian immigrants, with little education, must be enormously proud of you. They’ve toiled hard since arriving in Australia, working multiple jobs to support you and your two brothers. Your parents were Australian patriots and raised you to be one, too. “This country has given us everything. We owe this country everything,” they tell you. They speak to you in Italian, but you’re encouraged to always respond in English. “This is our home. We speak English here,” they say. The kids at school call you “wog” and “dago,” but this “casual racism” doesn’t bother you. “Water off a duck’s back,” is how you see it. You love this country.
Yours is a very Catholic family. For years, your mum cooks for the school Brothers and makes morning tea for the teachers. (Many years later, two of the principals during your time at the school, Brother Christopher Wade and Brother John O’Brien, will be charged with child sex offences. By then, you will be attending an Anglican church with your wife, who was raised Protestant.)
You have always loved history and are fascinated by military conflict, an interest your parents, who had lived through a war, did not approve of. As a boy, you would set toy soldiers up in battle configurations. You were captivated by the 1973 BBC documentary series The World At War. As a teenager, you read everything you could about World War I and World War II. D-Day. Churchill. Roosevelt. Why the allies decided to defeat Germany before turning their attention to Japan. The rise of fascism. The conflict with communism.
Little wonder that you decide to study history at the University of Sydney. You remain fascinated by the major power conflicts of the 20th century, but write your honours thesis about a more recent and local fight: the Sydney “green bans” of the 1970s. In it, you put forward a philosophical critique of power structures. You contend that although it was “dangerous” and “deplorable” that urban preservation had been left to a small group of unionists and environmentalists, the “green bans” put power in their hands, which was bad because it challenged political legitimacy. You are, after all, a big believer in institutions.
Part way through your degree, your father suicides. He was just 45. The experience is, understandably, a distressing and difficult one for you. Your mother is left a widow. Richard Bosworth — one of your history professors, a man you still have the “highest regard” for — encourages you to seek a job with the public service. (When asked, 35 years later, what he remembers of you, he says, “He seems to have chosen the right career path by preferring to join the bureaucracy rather than say doing a PhD and confronting the desert of the humanities in many Australian universities.”)
You score a graduate job with the Department of Defence in 1987.
Not long after your arrival in Canberra, you meet your wife, Lynne (nee Rilett). In her, you have met your match. She, too, has a “formidable intellect”. She boasts a bachelor of economics with first-class honours, and will later undertake a PhD in economics. Labor’s Gareth Evans is so impressed with her work as a research assistant on his book Australia’s Foreign Relations that she earns a special mention in his speech at the launch and in its printed acknowledgements. Evans wants to give her a job, but she wants to take time out to start a family with you. In the end, you get the role.
Together, you and Lynne will have four children. Religion will play a prominent role in your private lives. Lynne will be involved with a number of anti-abortion organisations. You will become a refugee advocate, and serve on the welcoming team at the Anglican church you both attend in Canberra. You see “Christianity’s radical conception of the individual” as underpinning “the freedoms we now have enshrined in modern liberal democracies”.
Throughout the ’90s, you hold various positions in government, including a stint in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
You are smart. People listen to you. By 1998, you are opposition leader Kim Beazley’s deputy chief of staff.
You get a seat at the table during Labor’s parliamentary tactics meetings. Not like the other staffers sitting in chairs at the back of the room, or leaning against the walls. In one of these meetings, a shadow minister makes a suggestion you don’t approve of. You slap them down publicly. The shadow minister is shocked, but nobody else seems to consider your behaviour out of order. You are, it is clear, becoming an Important Person.
In 2001, the world changes. In August, the Norwegian freighter Tampa arrives in Australia’s waters with more than 400 Afghan asylum seekers on board. Two weeks later, al-Qaeda terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. People are introduced to Osama bin Laden, “jihad” and “radical Islam”. People are scared.
Prime minister John Howard immediately takes a hard line on border protection, which plays very well for him. Kim Beazley needs a response. You draft him one. Labor’s 2001 national security policy includes a bold suggestion: the creation of a Home Affairs portfolio. It will take 16 years for your idea to be realised. In the meantime, your stellar career in Canberra continues.
Politicians come and go. The government changes in 2007. As a public servant, you don’t need to worry about elections.
In 2009, you become the principal author of the Defence white paper. It is criticised by some for being too “hawkish” on China (even without a secret planned chapter detailing how to fight a war with China). The Rudd government publicly insists the Chinese aren’t bothered by it, but US government cables obtained by WikiLeaks and given to The Age suggest otherwise. You are quoted in some of the cables as telling American diplomats that you were “dressed down” by Beijing’s representatives at a briefing and refused to agree to Chinese requests to water the document down.
Tony Abbott becomes prime minister. His first order of business is to stop the boats through Operation Sovereign Borders. You will play a key role in executing the policy. The orange lifeboats? They’re your idea.
Media coverage of the boat turnbacks is relentless, even though the government is being highly secretive. In February 2014, you refer a number of journalists to the AFP for reporting on asylum seeker stories in an attempt to uncover their sources. (The Guardian would later reveal the referrals as a result of freedom of information requests.) In a May 2014 Senate estimates hearing, you suggest a journalist who wrote an article you dispute is a “bottom feeder”.
As head of Customs and Border Protection, you introduce mandatory reporting of suspected corruption or misconduct, and bring in drug and alcohol testing. Around the same time, your brother, Fabio, a Sydney Airport customs officer, is being investigated for allegedly selling a generic version of Viagra to fellow customs officers. If you are embarrassed by your brother’s predicament, you don’t show it.
Throughout this period, you regularly remind your staff, via emails and briefings, about the importance of being a “shining example”. You disclose the conflict of interest to your minister and are scrupulous about staying at arm’s length from the investigation. But you don’t advise the members of a Senate committee when you update them on the customs corruption scandal. Some of those senators are annoyed when they find out.
In June, Fabio escapes a criminal conviction after admitting to lying to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. You write a note to your staff thanking them for their “thoughts and in some cases prayers”, and describe the experience as an opportunity for “the resilience and capacity of the human spirit to reveal itself”. There are “rumblings” within the department about this whole episode, given other employees have lost their jobs over real or perceived links to unsavoury characters.
Your brother’s ordeal doesn’t tarnish you. A few months later, prime minister Abbott appoints you secretary of the new Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Some people raise concerns with you about the imminent culture clash between the “soft and hard” worlds that have been joined in the merger. You’re not worried. “There is no such thing as culture,” you say. “Just do your job and it will work out.”
Your staff soon realise the “hard” culture is going to win out. You describe those who worked for the former Department of Immigration as “care bears”. You bring in militaristic Border Force uniforms. Even the chinos-and-polo-shirt coders who sit in a basement all day and have no interaction with the public are expected to wear them. Casual Fridays are a thing of the past. First names are out, formal titles are in. You more than double the number of officers trained to carry weapons.
A lot of your soldiers, though, aren’t happy with the direction you’re taking the department. Senior level staff are leaving in big numbers. They don’t like that immigration is no longer about nation-building, but you say Australia’s post-war mission of mass migration is over. It’s all about national security now.
The media is starting to notice you — and you notice it, making public critiques. In a 2016 Senate estimates hearing, you are questioned about media reports that a child had been raped on Nauru. You dispute the details of the report, and complain that media coverage is becoming “advocacy parading as journalism”.
Later that year, you and Lynne are named by The Canberra Times as one of the capital’s “power couples”. She has become very successful in her own right. She is a health economist and partner at Deloitte, and often provides policy advice to government. It’s the kind of work that gets you a decent seat in the Great Hall when the prime minister speaks. She earns more money than you. (Who cares? No one, it’s just that that’s literally the headline.) Together, you’re pulling in well over $1 million a year.
By 2016, 70% of your staff apparently express “no confidence” in your leadership, but outside the office you’re gaining recognition as a “thought leader”. You give speeches to think tanks and business groups. These talks often focus on the “dark universe” brought by globalisation — terror, crime, and evil. You frequently reference philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. You talk about Leviathan and the Sovereign, and for a touch of pop-cultural levity, Bec Judd. You congratulate her for her decision to wear flat shoes to the football, should she need to run from a terrorist attack. That’s the kind of judgment you think should be applauded.
Your work ethic is legendary. You start the day at 4.30am, “digesting through the online feed” and issuing your first tasks for the day from about 6am. Your staff are “geared for it,” you say, although one former Customs and Border Protection officer who worked under you for several years describes your tendency to call staff at all hours with non-urgent matters as an example of a lack of “boundaries in terms of his staff’s home/work balance”.
Another former colleague who worked with you during your days as head of Customs paints this picture of you: “He is an understated man of brilliance. This is not pissing in his pocket. This is simply giving you the facts from my perspective — he is brilliant, but he knows it. And because he knows it he adopts the approach that you often find with these people. He wants always to be known as the smartest man in the room. That means when you have something to say to Mike it better be relevant, it better be 100% accurate, and it better be something that he doesn’t know. Because if you’re wasting his oxygen and time telling him something he already knew he wasn’t a happy camper.”
In February 2017 The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) investigates the Australian Border Force’s use of its draconian statutory powers. It finds Border Force has failed to ensure its officials don’t exercise “coercive powers unlawfully or inappropriately”, that there have been unlawful searches carried out by officials, and that “the department has not provided adequate instructions and guidance for officers exercising coercive powers”. Furious, you lash out at the ANAO at Senate estimates, declaring the report to be poor quality, “not rooted in reality” and reflecting “a reoccurring pattern with the audit office” of criticising your department.
In late 2017, the Department of Home Affairs is born. It looks a lot like the one you first proposed in the wake of 9/11, bringing border security, intelligence agencies, federal police, customs and immigration together. You are the secretary of this super portfolio. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull makes Peter Dutton your minister. The former Queensland cop seems to share your view of the world.
You earn a reputation for your “combative” style in Senate estimates hearings, at one point comparing the whole process to “torture”. It’s a joke, sure, but you also make it clear that, with your three decades of experience in the public service, you know more about the mechanics of government than the senators who’ve been there for five minutes.
In June 2018, your oversight of the merger of Immigration and Customs comes under scrutiny. A report by the ANAO finds it failed to produce the benefits expected, with less than half of the forecast revenue obtained, and no evidence of the expected efficiencies. It notes “almost half of the SES [Senior Executive Service] officers present in July 2015 [are] no longer in the department at July 2017”.
In April 2018, News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst publishes a story about a proposal to allow the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australians without the need for a warrant or the attorney-general’s approval. The story is based on leaked correspondence between you and the secretary of defence. You say Smethurst’s reporting was “erroneous”, and confirm to Senate estimates that the leak has been referred to the AFP for investigation.
Six months later, you give a speech on the role of the public service. You highlight the principles that underpin our Westminster parliamentary system, including the importance of freedom of political expression, separation of powers, and freedom of the press. You say you don’t think enough people in public service are aware of these traditions, and warn that “it would be mortally dangerous … for the public service to come to possess an aggrandised conception of its role”. Unelected officials are not “custodians of the ‘public interest’,” you say.
In December 2018 you are involved in a traffic incident in Canberra, in which it is alleged you knocked a cyclist, Jason Sievers, off his bike. You weren’t tested for drugs or alcohol at the time, and there was no suggestion that you were under the influence, but Sievers was tested. He received a broken collarbone and was incapacitated for several months. You dispute his version of events, meaning six months later, Sievers’ insurance claim is still on hold until the matter is resolved. His wife, Maria, says they are feeling “frustrated and jaded”. You refuse to answer questions about the incident when asked about it during Senate estimates, saying it’s a “private traffic matter”.
In 2019, you really make a name for yourself. In March, you give a speech on the “seven gathering storms” of the 2020s, outlining what you see as the most significant national security challenges facing Australia. “Radical extremist Islamist terrorism” makes the list. Homegrown white supremacist terrorism does not.
Two days later, an Australian man — a white supremacist — shoots dead 51 innocent people in a mosque in New Zealand. In the immediate aftermath, independent senator Fraser Anning (formerly of One Nation) publicly blames the victims of the attack, saying it proves the link between Muslim immigration and violence. It emerges that a staffer on leave from Home Affairs, working for Anning, is accused of having written the senator’s maiden speech to parliament that included the words “final solution”. You promise to investigate the matter, telling a Senate estimates hearing that the department has “rededicated itself to standing resolutely against the extremist ideology of white supremacy and its adherents”.
Morale in Home Affairs is taking a nosedive. In April, a no-confidence petition is circulated by Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) members angered over cuts to pay and conditions, “mismanagement and chaos” and “disrespect from management”. It says you “must be held responsible for actively driving the intolerable situation that has developed”.
In June, the AFP raids Annika Smethurst’s house in Canberra, over her story from 14 months earlier. The next day, the AFP raid the ABC offices in Sydney over a story about alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan based on documents leaked by a whistleblower.
There is worldwide outrage over what is seen as an assault on press freedom. You say it’s your responsibility to ensure that “all information that is held by the Department is managed in accordance with the legislative requirements applicable to the collection, use and disclosure of that information” including “ensuring classified information is not disclosed in an unauthorised manner”. However Senator Rex Patrick says it’s a “direct assault on public interest journalism,” alleging that you and Dutton “clearly hate media scrutiny”. You don’t like his comments, so you call him about them. (It’s not the first time you’ve contacted a senator to let them know you are displeased with their criticism.)
Senator Patrick doesn’t appreciate the call. He writes a Facebook post saying he felt your tone was “menacing” and that the call was an attempt to silence him. You say it was simply “to ask that he reflect” on his remarks.
This sparks a further outcry. It is not ordinary behaviour for a public servant.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he found your call “concerning,” and tells Peter Dutton to counsel you about it. Dutton issues a statement calling your behaviour “inappropriate”, while simultaneously seeming to defend you.
The attention lingers. Everyone wants to know more about you — Australia’s most powerful bureaucrat. You are “brilliant”, according to just about all who comment. But they also point out that although boat arrivals have stopped almost entirely, there’s been an explosion in the number of asylum seekers penetrating the border by plane. Almost 30,000 of them in 2017-18 alone, well over the number that were coming by boat at the peak of the Rudd/Gillard years. They are mostly from Malaysia and China, apparently using an old visa scam to get here that was, for decades, “well-known” within the Department of Immigration. The “care bears” used to “clamp down on it” before it got out of control, according to a former deputy secretary of Immigration.
And it looks like it’s getting hard to recruit soldiers to the cause. At the start of 2019, there were more than 40 SES positions without permanent occupants across the portfolio; the number remains over 30 now.
Cracks are beginning to show in the armour of Home Affairs, but you soldier on. Nothing, it would seem, can discourage your laser-like focus in Australia’s battle against the dark universe.
Dig Deeper: Further reading, watching, and listening.
Religious Freedoms & Obligations Michael Pezzullo “Men’s Breakfast” talk for Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Canberra, June 2019