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Australia says internal security czar to stand aside during influence probe

Michael Pezzullo, the secretary of the powerful home affairs department, will make way for a new acting head during the investigation.

2 minute read
Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Photo: Reuters
Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Photo: Reuters

Australia said on Monday the top civil servant in its home affairs department would stand aside during an inquiry into accusations that he intervened in politics to promote favoured politicians, attack opponents and push for media censorship.

Michael Pezzullo, the secretary of the powerful department, will make way for a new acting head during the investigation, said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of the ruling Labor Party, without giving any timeframe.

"He has agreed to stand aside," Albanese told a press conference. "That action is appropriate. We will await the findings of the investigation, which we will expedite."

The home affairs ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reuters could not immediately trace contacts for Pezzullo to seek comment.

Australia requires its public servants to be impartial, apolitical, and avoid conflicts of interest.

The home affairs department Pezzullo led is a "super ministry" set up in 2017 to combine agencies from federal police and intelligence to immigration and border security.

Monday's step follows a joint investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age newspaper and TV programme 60 Minutes that accused Pezzullo of lobbying an influential centre-right Liberal Party powerbroker in thousands of text messages over five years.

According to the media investigation, the texts showed Pezzullo, who had long championed the move, attacking ministers and departments that opposed it, in one instance calling for the attorney-general's department to be "put to the sword".

During the August 2018 leadership battle for the Liberal Party then in power, Pezzullo pushed for the new home affairs minister to be a "right winger", the messages, most of them on the apps Signal and WhatsApp, showed, the media reports said.

He added that a moderate would be "potentially lethal" to Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia's hardline immigration policy involving turning back boats at sea and processing asylum seekers in offshore detention centres, the reports said.

In 2019, Pezzullo lobbied for new laws to allow government to pressure media companies not to publish stories deemed harmful to national security, similar to Britain's system of "D-notices", the reports showed.

The conversation came days after police raided a journalist's home over accusations of having published classified material.

"Press freedom issue has completely vanished," Pezzullo said in a text messages days after appearing at a parliamentary committee on the matter, the media investigation said.

"Job done," he added, followed by an emoji graphic displaying a green tick. "Sometimes you have to hit an issue with a massive amount of ordnance."