Mike Pezzullo prides himself on being the backroom architect of government thinking on defence and national security.
Pezzullo’s been known to describe his role as something of a “black hat” who spies the bad news before it might arrive.
If you believe the hype, he’s got excellent ears too.
He’s hearing the “beating drums” of war, according to his Anzac Day message.
“In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat — sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer,” Pezzullo wrote.
Given the frostiness between the West and China, and concern that Taiwan could be the flashpoint for conflict, the implication of what Pezzullo was saying could not have been missed: war with China.
It was hawkish and provocative. Some Canberra observers were less polite: unnecessary, intemperate, bordering on dangerous.
But why did he see fit to say it? And with whose authority was he saying it?
A brilliant but divisive bureaucratic heavyweight, Pezzullo can lay claim to some significant policy and strategic edifices.
He was there alongside Scott Morrison to implement Operation Sovereign Borders, the unapologetically hardline and overtly secret mission to stop asylum-seeker boats coming ashore.
He was the principal author of the 2009 Defence White Paper which was most notable for dialling up the emphasis on China and the bolstering of Australia’s naval military capability.
And, perhaps most remarkably, he devised the creation of the sprawling super ministry Department of Home Affairs, albeit 20 years ago when he was deputy chief of staff to then-Labor leader Kim Beazley.
Two decades later, Pezzullo is the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, which completes quite the feat of career gymnastics.
But Pezzullo isn’t quite done.
He is a policy adventurist, with clearly a wandering eye on portfolio matters.
Pezzullo might be a big fish in the Canberra puddle but he is not secretary of defence. Not yet, at least.
He’s long coveted the job, currently held by Greg Moriarty who’d have good reason to be more than puzzled at Pezzullo’s incendiary incursion.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton, Pezzullo’s old boss in Home Affairs, reportedly has no problem with the sentiment expressed.
Karen Andrews, who’s still finding her feet in Dutton’s old job, said she’d received an advance copy of Pezzullo’s Anzac Day missive and, presumably, saw no issue with it either.
But Pezzullo’s last few paragraphs needed to be read carefully.
“Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war,” he wrote.
Andrews called it a “very strong opinion piece” by her secretary.
She said that as a “very highly regarded” public servant, Pezzullo was “absolutely at liberty to prepare such a speech or document and to have that published”.
Pezzullo’s “opinion piece” was published on the department’s website on Sunday, then republished in The Australian newspaper’s opinion pages on Tuesday.
Andrews volunteered to Nine’s Today show: “The overarching message from government is that we need to be alert but not alarmed.”
Despite her gentle interpretation, Pezzullo was being a lot more assertive than this. Rather than “be alert but not alarmed”, he was advising to be alert and well armed.
Presumably against a Chinese adversary, too.
Which, again, is curious because Pezzullo is not the defence secretary — yet – nor can he (officially at least) be talking on behalf of the Defence Minister.
But if Pezzullo really does hear the drumbeat of war and if this accurately reflects advice being received by government, shouldn’t defence spending be at a level required by a war footing?
The Prime Minister obviously saw this implication.
“Our objective is to pursue peace,” Morrison told reporters on Tuesday, before freely venturing into the topic of defence spending.
“Two per cent of our economy … is spent each year now ensuring that we have a capable defence force in this country … and we have done that to ensure that Australia’s national interest can always be protected.
“But our goal is to pursue peace and our region. It’s to pursue peace and stability and, as I’ve said before, a world order that favours freedom.”
If the drumbeat of war really is being heard by Pezzullo – or anyone else in authority – 2 per cent of GDP won’t cut it.
The government can’t have it both ways.
If Morrison & Co endorse what some expert observers privately dismiss as exaggerated rhetorical flourish from a uniquely ambitious fellow, then defence spending is nowhere near as high as it should be.
Was there a bit of freelancing from Pezzullo? To some degree, but not entirely.
Were his words a down payment on what he expects might be his next gig?
That’s the multi-billion-dollar question.