The Senate were in debate of the contentious encryption bill which was eventually passed with bipartisan support, despite numerous tech companies and information experts voicing their opposition, when Senator for Western Australia Jordon Steele-John went on the attack.
“The legislation before the chamber tonight is one of the most dangerous and one of the least-thought-through pieces of legislation ever to come before the Australian parliament,” he said.
“Within its pages are listed the mechanisms by which the privacy of every Australian citizen may be violated, the security of our nation placed at risk and billions of dollars worth of industry banished overseas.
“This legislation is nothing more or less than the dark fantasy of a particular public servant — a man who has been working his way to the top of Australian government for decades, a man of a dangerous right-wing disposition who has successfully created a department in his image and who now stands on the cusp of achieving a lifelong goal of empowering the Australian government with the ability to keep the general populace, who he regards as nothing more or less than helpless sheep, safe and sound.
“I am talking, of course, of Michael Pezzullo, the head of the Department of Home Affairs, who has, for almost ten years now, waited for a government stupid enough to pass this legislation and an opposition weak enough to let them do it.”
Steele-John went on to describe Pezzullo as “a man of such dangerous ideas, of such a radical disposition, of such an absolute, ironclad belief in his own rightness, that he would force through legislation that he knows is flawed ... because he wants the power”.
“He believes that he alone is the man of the moment—the man willing, the man capable, of keeping us safe,” he added.
Senator Steele-John was then forced to withdraw a comment in which he described Pezzullo as “a snake that has waited in the grass for a helpless government”.
Pezzullo, who was appointed to the position of Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs in 2014, has hit back in a striking letter addressed to President of the Senate Hon Scott Ryan.
Pezzullo opened the letter: “How best to answer another’s scorn?”
“Answer according to the scorn, and one risks behaving like the other,” he wrote.
“Do not answer the scorn and one risks allowing the other to be wise in their own eyes.”
Pezzullo, whose parents were migrants from rural Campania, described Steele-John’s speech as “an unprovoked and vitriolic attack on my character and reputation”.
“These utterances were untroubled by facts or logic, lacked grace, and were devoid of basic courtesy,” he said.
“The speaker spoke of evils which have never happened, outside of some imaginary world.
“The suggestion that through the 'sinister' and secret exercise by me of some hidden power that I possess, the government and opposition were somehow duped witlessly into supporting the bill in complete ignorance of its implications is preposterous, as is the insult that I am motivated by a dark vision of controlling the population.”
Pezzullo went on to emphasise that he does not “seek redress”, but wishes to “assure you and all Senators that I and my department serve the government of the day”.
Senator Steele-John and Pezzullo have previously clashed over the encryption laws, with Pezzullo stating that the legislation would not “undermine legitimate encryption" and suggestions that a backdoor would need to be created were a “cartoon-like assumption”.
Senator Steele-John responded by saying Pezzullo’s comments were “complete and utter nonsense” and that Pezullo and his department “have insulted the intelligence of me and my staff”.
With a 30-year career behind him in government, Pezzullo holds an influential role in advising ministers on immigration, national security and border protection.
The coalition’s encryption laws were easily passed with the support of Bill Shorten and the Labor Party on December 6, 2018, in time for the Christmas break.
The government is however required to facilitate consideration of amendments to the bill in the new year.