Home affairs department head Michael Pezzullo standing aside pending investigation over leaked texts

<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The head of the home affairs department, Michael Pezzullo, has stood aside pending an “expedited” investigation after a series of leaked texts called into question whether he made partisan interventions under the Coalition governments.

The Age and 60 Minutes first revealed the series of texts between Pezzullo and Liberal powerbroker, Scott Briggs, in which the home affairs secretary disparaged senior Coalition ministers and advocated for a right winger to be minister responsible for his department.

On Monday the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, revealed that home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, had asked that Pezzullo “stand aside” while an investigation took place.

“He has agreed to stand aside – that action is appropriate,” Albanese told reporters in Whyalla. “We’ll await the findings of the investigation, which we will expedite.

“We have a cabinet meeting this afternoon where, no doubt, I’ll be able to get further reports about that.

“We’ll make no further comment on the specifics for obvious reasons – it’s important that these processes are allowed to take their course.”

Albanese said the former Australian public service commissioner, Lynelle Briggs, who is no relation to Scott Briggs, will conduct an independent review.

Earlier on Monday, O’Neil said: “I am aware of reporting regarding communications between Mr Michael Pezzullo and Mr Scott Briggs.”

“Last night, I referred this matter to the Australian Public Service Commissioner, Dr Gordon de Brouwer.”

At a press conference in Adelaide, O’Neil said an inquiry was “appropriate and in the public interest”. “I will have more to say when the inquiry is concluded.”

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The commissioner is responsible for investigating possible breaches of the APS code of conduct, which requires public servants to be apolitical and independent. Pezzullo also reportedly says in the messages that he is apolitical and a “neutral servant of the government of the day”.

The texts were described as being sent on encrypted messaging apps WhatsApp and Signal. 60 Minutes said it had learned of the messages and their content “via a third party who obtained lawful access to them”.

According to the report, on 21 August 2018, in the week that Peter Dutton challenged Malcolm Turnbull resulting in Scott Morrison becoming Liberal leader, Pezzullo texted Briggs about who would serve as home affairs minister.

“You need a right winger in there – people smugglers will be watching … please feed that in,” he reportedly messaged.

Pezzullo reportedly said he “almost had a heart attack” when he saw that then foreign minister, Julie Bishop, had put her hand up to contest the leadership.

When told by Briggs that Morrison was in front, Pezzullo reportedly replied: “Ready to serve. Same goes for Dutton too, of course.”

“I don’t wish to interfere but you won’t be surprised to hear that in the event of ScoMo [Scott Morrison] getting up I would like to see [Peter] Dutton come back to HA [home affairs].”

On 15 December 2017, the day before the Bennelong byelection that she contested for Labor, Pezzullo reportedly described the ALP’s Kristina Keneally, who would later serve as shadow home affairs minister, as “looking quite unhinged”.

Before the five super Saturday byelections in July 2018, when Briggs advised that Turnbull was “confident” the Liberal party could gain two seats from Labor, Pezzullo reportedly remarked “that will change the game”.

“Not my business but you will need to be careful about rushing to capitalise at the polls. Punters hate that,” he reportedly said.

On Monday morning, the Greens’ immigration spokesperson, Nick McKim, said Pezzullo’s position was “untenable” due to his alleged “brazen attempts to manipulate the political process and his failure to respect the boundaries between politics and the public service”.

“If Mr Pezzullo wants to play in the political sandpit then he should stand for parliament,” McKim said in a statement.

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“It was a grievous mistake for [Anthony] Albanese to reappoint Mr Pezullo when he came to office, and he now has the chance to correct the error.

“If Mr Pezzullo is not already working on his resignation, then the prime minister should demand it or sack him.”

The opposition leader, former home affairs minister Peter Dutton, defended Pezzullo, saying he conducted himself in a thoroughly professional way in my dealings with him”.

“If the prime minister doesn’t have confidence in Mr Pezzullo, he should say so,” Dutton told reporters in Moree.

The Australian Public Service Commission said that it “takes referrals seriously”. “At this early stage it would be inappropriate to provide commentary that pre-empts any processes.”

Pezzullo was a former deputy chief of staff to Labor leader Kim Beazley. He rose through the ranks of the public service to become secretary of the department of immigration and border protection in October 2014.

When the super department of home affairs was created, Pezzullo was appointed secretary in December 2017. Labor retained him as secretary when it was elected in May 2022.

Pezzulo’s term is due to expire in October 2024. The appointment of Stephanie Foster as associate secretary of immigration in October 2022 has led to internal speculation his term will not be renewed.

Guardian Australia contacted Pezzullo for comment.