(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

While the rest of the public service is cowed, silent and anxious to not offend its political masters, thank goodness for Home Affairs’ Mike Pezzullo, who feels unrestrained in offering his thoughts on anything and everything.

His 2018 missive to his SES staff remains a magisterial tome — all 1900 words — in the library of APS leadership. His views last year about the coming apocalypse worried us all.

Pezzullo’s latest offering, courtesy of The Australian, also sets an appropriately dark tone for this sombre moment in Australian history. The drums of war are beating, and free nations can hear them. We must brace, yet again, for the curse of war. By our preparedness of arms, Pezzullo says, “let us set about reducing the likelihood of war — but not at the cost of our precious liberty”.

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Certainly these were stirring words as Pezzullo farewelled the first Australian Border Force troopships, dispatched to our latest conflict, honouring the brave men and women who would leave our shores and, perhaps, pay the ultimate price for freedom in the battle against… wait, hang on, we’re at war again? It’s only five minutes since we decided we’d follow the Americans out the door after twenty years of failure in Afghanistan, but Pezzullo is up for another conflict.

Perhaps he’s got ahead of himself and thinks he’s already moved to the Department of Defence and begun looking at what assets he can deploy in-theatre. Certainly he was moved to tell the bureaucrats of Home Affairs and Australian Border Force of speeches by Douglas MacArthur and President Eisenhower; the former in an address to West Point cadets, about how “a nation’s warriors had but one dedicated purpose”. Straight from the green Plain of the Point to the windy cement squares of Belconnen. Anyone looking for evidence of the militarisation of Home Affairs under Peter Dutton and Pezzullo need look no further.

Whether MacArthur is the kind of figure you want to invoke when hinting, not so subtly, that a war with China could be around the corner, is an interesting question. Truman sacked MacArthur because he wanted to attack China, thus expanding the Korean War into a full-scale continental conflict, potentially with the Soviet Union as well. The joint chiefs of staff, under Omar Bradley, were aghast at the idea. Worse still, as part of his plan, MacArthur wanted to rain atomic bombs on Chinese forces.

Is Pezzullo seeking to send a subtle message to the Chinese by invoking the man who planned to nuke them?

As for Eisenhower, Pezzullo notes that his speech emphasised the waste of military spending. “Every dollar spent on war machines is a dollar not spent on a school, a hospital, a road or a bridge” (or, it might be added, spending in Pezzullo’s Home Affairs portfolio, like police services, customs officers or visa systems).

Eisenhower extended that point in his final, famous address to the American people in 1961 when he warned “in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

That’s exactly what has happened in the intervening sixty years — arguably, had already happened under Eisenhower himself — via the enormous financial and lobbying power of defence and technology companies, including cybersecurity companies, the revolving door between Congress, the military and successive administrations and those very companies. In fact, Eisenhower described perfectly the model for the integration of corporations and government that is now standard in the US and here.

As for our liberties or democratic processes, Pezzullo and his department have a fine track record on that front: proposing to give the Australian Signals Directorate the power to target Australians; AFP raids on journalists for embarrassing the government; proposals to give the AFP a “papers please” power to arbitrarily stop people and demand ID in airports; unlawful searches (as revealed by the ANAO); unlawful detention of Australian citizens in 2016 and 2017; attempts to secure the biometric data of all Australians at airports.

“At the cost of our precious liberty”? You betcha.

And don’t forget Home Affairs is the portfolio with the worst track record of blunders, bungles and stuff-ups in the Commonwealth. Maybe Pezzullo should spend less time listening for the drums of war and more getting his officials to do the basics of public administration.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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