It was one of Morrison’s most contentious foreign policy moves. Michael Pezzullo wanted to help

By Nick McKenzie and Michael Bachelard

Fomer prime minister Scott Morrison flagged the move of Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.Credit: Matthew Absalom-Wong

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Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo undermined Australia’s highest-ranking public servants as they scrambled to manage former prime minister Scott Morrison’s contentious proposal to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Encrypted messages Pezzullo sent to Morrison’s confidant and Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs in November 2018 reveal the senior public servant tried to covertly shape the major foreign policy decision and described the bureaucrats warning against Morrison’s plan as “useless”.

The messages make clear Pezzullo sought to impress upon Briggs that he, as an ostensibly apolitical and independent departmental chief, was the only one committed to advancing the prime minister’s Israel agenda.

Pezzullo also shared his assessment of the Christchurch terror attack and other sensitive material with Briggs, as the Home Affairs chief sought to ingratiate himself with a powerbroker he knew had a direct line to Morrison.

The latest revelations in the Pezzullo scandal will open up a new avenue of inquiry for the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s investigation into the Home Affairs secretary. That inquiry is already probing dozens of other messages Pezzullo sent Briggs over five years.

The publication of some of those messages on Sunday evening by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes forced the Albanese government to stand down Pezzullo and task the public service commissioner with investigating him.

Two sources close to Pezzullo told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that the embattled department chief has signalled he will never return to his post or government.

A contentious plan

In October 2018, Morrison flagged the high-stakes and historic proposal for Australia to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The promise came in the lead-up to the Wentworth byelection, and mirrored former US president Donald Trump’s decision for the US to do the same in the face of international condemnation.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital city, an argument that’s considered one of the most contentious in the decades long conflict and one that’s likely to be one of the last problems to be solved in any negotiated settlement. Morrison made the call without consulting the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison announced his plans for the Australian embassy in Israel in October 2018.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

After Morrison’s comments sparked a backlash, the then prime minister sought the views of an expert and supposedly apolitical and independent panel of departmental secretaries, including Pezzullo, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary, Frances Adamson, and the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson.

Leaked messages show that Pezzullo went outside the confidentiality of the panel discussions by leaking its deliberations to Briggs and pushing himself forward as its sole member committed to advancing Morrison’s policy.

The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes are not suggesting any of the exchanges are corrupt or illegal, only that they were inappropriate for a senior public servant. In one message during the panel consultations, Pezzullo told Briggs he doubted Parkinson and Adamson “have their heart in” the proposed policy.

The public service code of conduct requires bureaucrats to be apolitical, which Pezzullo has said in a major speech involves avoiding “raw politics” and maintaining “the boundary between the political and the administrative”. The Jerusalem revelations suggest Pezzullo politicised a public service panel in one of the most sensitive aspects of Australia’s foreign policy.

The sticking point

On November 21, 2018, a month after Morrison made the Israel announcement, Pezzullo messaged Briggs using an encrypted messaging app asking: “Very privately: where does PM want to land on Jerusalem?”

Briggs answered that he had been bunkered down with Morrison’s inner circle and that the then prime minister wanted to “look at whether we can formally recognise Jerusalem as capital – although I got the sense he believes the advice will be we can’t do that”.

Pezzullo responded: “Got it. The bureaucracy will be useless on this. Will condescendingly tell the PM how he slipped up!”

Briggs then told Pezzullo that Morrison was facing widespread criticism over the move, but said that “philosophically he doesn’t want to resile from it and believes it is a good thing to do”.

Pezzullo, whose job was to run Australia’s internal security, and whose minister at the time was Peter Dutton, appeared to curry favour, telling Briggs that he “understood” Morrison’s predicament, but that his fellow secretaries would likely be cautious. “Martin [Parkinson] and Frances [Adamson] will be hard to get over the line,” Pezzullo texted.

“Recognition [of Jerusalem as capital] is the sticking point within the group but I am holding the line.”

On December 1, Pezzullo again messaged Briggs to complain about the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “We can do recognition immediately in my view but DFAT lawyers are holding out. I doubt that Parkinson and Adamson have their heart in it.”

Briggs responded by saying that Morrison would be pleased with his efforts: “Okay. He will be glad that there is a pathway. He will push Parkinson. The pm [Scott Morrison] suspects the same thing re Parkinson and Adamson.”

In subsequent messages, Pezzullo continued to complain about DFAT’s resistance.

“Use of Present Tense will be important. I want to recognise West J [Jerusalem] as functioning capital of State of Israel in present tense. DFAT resisting,” he wrote in one message. In another, Pezzullo lashed out at former diplomats who were opposing the historic shift in foreign policy.

“The guild of retired diplomats will fall about in hysteria,” he wrote.

Ultimately, in December, Australia became one of a handful of countries to recognise that West Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, but said it would not move its embassy from Tel Aviv until a peace settlement was reached.

Morrison also announced Australia would establish a defence and trade office in Jerusalem and start looking for an embassy site. Sources close to the government at the time, speaking anonymously to relay private conversations, said this was the compromise that the expert committee had agreed to.

Labor reversed that position last October, returning Australia to the status quo, with the embassy remaining in Tel Aviv until a lasting peace is achieved.

Sharing sensitive information

On other occasions, Pezzullo also briefed Briggs – who has no official role in the government or the parliament – on his dealings with senior ministers and their staffers. The Australian Public Service code of conduct requires public servants to “maintain appropriate confidentiality about dealings that the employee has with any minister or minister’s member of staff”.

However, after the New Zealand terrorist attack in March 2019, Pezzullo forwarded to Briggs a briefing he had sent to his minister, Dutton, and the prime minister, containing the Home Affairs secretary’s initial assessment of the Christchurch killer’s “deluded manifesto”.

Pezzullo warned Briggs he wasn’t to share the message, writing: “Just for you [Briggs]. Sent to PM and MHA [Home Affairs Minister] a few minutes ago. Do not pass on.”

In other messages, Pezzullo shared with Briggs messages he had sent Malcolm Turnbull’s key political advisers, including national security adviser Justin Bassi and then chief of staff Greg Moriarty.

Pezzullo also briefed the political operative on a sensitive discussion he had with then secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Chris Moraitis, about the handling of proposed national security laws that, upon public release, had been savaged by civil libertarians and the media.

In his message to Briggs, Pezzullo revealed he had warned Moraitis about the backlash.

“Just between you and I and NOT for discussion with the PM or others, when this was being developed I reminded and warned Moraitis about the grief encountered by [former prime minister Paul] Keating in 1995 when he tried to do similar,” Pezzullo texted to Briggs.

Pezzullo later told Briggs the introduction of the new laws had been badly bungled and that someone should be sacked.

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