It has been reported that Home Affairs Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, was privately praising the Australian Federal Police (AFP) for raiding the home of News Corporation journalist, Annika Smethurst, while publicly claiming to support press freedom.
Last year, Ms Smethurst published a report about the federal government’s to empower Australian intelligence agencies to spy on the general public without the need for a warrant.
The publication included exerts of communications between politicians, as well as between Mr Pezzullo and Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty.
Parts of the report were critical of the Home Affairs and Defence Departments, who were pushing for greater powers to surveil the public.
On 4 June 2019, nearly a year after the report and referral by Defence to the AFP, officers swarmed Ms Smethurst’s home in a scene reminiscent of an anti-terrorism raid.
The raid triggered heavy criticism from both national and international media outlets, perplexed by the manner in which the operation was carried out in a country meant to be a representative democracy with press freedoms.
“The Australian public’s right to know information about government laws that could impact their lives is of fundamental importance in our society,” News Corp Australia said at the time.”
This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths. The raid was outrageous and heavy handed.”
The private comments
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation have revealed that Mr Pezzullo telephoned AFP Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan to praise him about the raid.
In an email sent on the evening before the operation, Mr Gaughan told his staff, “Good work by all involved. I also received a call this evening from the Sec DHA [Mr Pezzullo] who is fully supportive of the actions of the AFP and ask [sic] me to pass on my [sic] thanks to the team involved.”
The material is inconsistent with Mr Pezzullo’s comments both to the media and in parliament.
For instance, while being questioned in a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) on 14 August 2019, Pezzullo claimed he was surprised that Ms Smethurst was under investigation at all.
When asked what he would do if the media approached him with a leaked government document, he said he would attempt to negotiate what would and would not be published, before proceeding to state, “I accept, in a country with a free press, they’re going to publish” and that he would not stand in the way of stories about “human rights abuses or maladministration or other facets that are in the public interest.”
The FOI request
The FOI request for communications between Homes Affairs and Defence was made by South Australian senator for Centre Alliance, Rex Patrick.
“The contents of the released documents confirm a lack of judgment at the highest levels of Home Affairs where national strategy and security policy is set,” Mr Patrick stated.
“After the raid on Ms Smethurst, alarm bells immediately started ringing for the media, the public, and indeed across government. Yet the Secretary of Home Affairs appears to have been blind to public concerns, expressing satisfaction with the raids.”
Senator Patrick criticised the raids shortly after being informed of them, adding that Mr Pezzulo and Mr Dutton “hate media scrutiny.”
According to Mr Patrick, Pezzullo had later attempted to intimidate him into silence.
It was later reported that Mr Pezzullo’s ‘strongman tactics’ led to a rebuke by none other than home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, who said “I advised the secretary it was inappropriate to contact Senator Patrick even if just to point out the inaccuracies in the Senator’s press release.”
Mr Pezzullo confirmed that he made the call to Mr Gaughan as reported in the press, but tried to brush it off.
“DC Gaughan is a colleague. In the discussion in question, I expressed my compliments to him and his officers on their professionalism and their diligent focus on independently enforcing the laws of the land,” he remarked.
“To conflate the expression of professional compliments to colleagues with a supposed attitude to press freedom is not an accurate comparison.”
Mr Pezzullo’s claims to support a free press echo those of others in government who have told the media they support press freedoms while, at the same time, pushing for legislation which broadens laws criminalising whistleblowers and those who publish the leaked information.
Attorney-General Christian Porter, for example, claimed in the wake of the press raids that he would be “seriously disinclined to consent to a prosecution” of journalists, despite supporting the government’s so called ’secrecy laws’.
Meanwhile the man at the helm, Scott Morrison, has stated that, “My government is absolutely committed to freedom of the press.”
However, his actions and those of preceding Coalition governments are entirely at odds with that statement.