At a time when the world is cloaked in uncertainty and facing extraordinary challenges, Michael Pezzullo finds it useful to look back.
In charge of the federal department focusing on national security, law enforcement, and immigration, among other policy areas, he is invested in key issues confronting the country - some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
But the former history student believes the past can bring a perspective helping to solve the problems that emerge.
In describing how his interest in history influences his work as one of Australia's top bureaucrats, he recounts major events of the 19th and 20th centuries - presidential assassinations, pandemics, world wars, the Depression - as historical examples that can provide guideposts to thinking about the challenges of today.
"Even though every challenge that you face is brand new, every set of or combination of circumstances is brand new, there are patterns through history," Mr Pezzullo said.
"There are patterns through life. Whilst they don't exactly echo, they do rhyme."
The Home Affairs Department secretary was speaking on Tuesday after being appointed an officer of the Order of Australia for his leadership roles in national security, border control and immigration.
In the past decade of his 30 years in the public service, Mr Pezzullo has led delivery of some of the government's most controversial and contested policies.
In this day and age of social media and people doing a lot of their own research and wanting to get information, I think it's actually critically important that senior officials of my level speak more about how we go about administration.Michael Pezzullo
As Australian Customs and Border Protection Service chief and Immigration Department secretary he helped implement Australia's border protection program after the Coalition won government in 2013.
The senior official has overseen major departmental restructures, and played a central role in the recent overhaul of Australia's national security apparatus.
Asked about his role contributing to national discussion, he said the most senior public servants should speak publicly about how they deliver government programs.
However it was also critical for officials not to undermine confidence in their impartiality when speaking publicly, he said.
"As long as our speeches and our utterances respect those two iron rules, one, stay out of politics, and two, it's not your job to settle, decide and promulgate policy, then there is actually quite a broad role [in public discussion].
"In this day and age of social media and people doing a lot of their own research and wanting to get information, I think it's actually critically important that senior officials of my level speak more about how we go about administration, delivery of programs and how we go about undertaking our work."
Mr Pezzullo said it was for ministers to promulgate government policies.
"They're the ones who face the electorate in our democracy, they're the ones who have to translate political ideology, values, political norms into policy objectives to win a mandate for those objectives, they're the ones who have to then calculate, 'when I next face the electors, are they going to have confidence in me? Did I deliver? Or in the thing that I'm about to do, is the public with me?'," he said.
"It's very important for us as statutory office holders and officials otherwise, we don't face that burden, we don't face that test, and we don't quite rightly have to calculate whether or not the public is with us.
"We have to be responsive to the democratically elected government, but it's not for us to make that calculation."
Across the boundaries
Mr Pezzullo's department has been at the centre of efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, leading the National Coordination Mechanism supporting the national cabinet with the federal government's non-health response to the pandemic.
The senior bureaucrat believes the public service will see more of the model adopted during its response to COVID-19, in which agencies and departments crossed each others' boundaries and supplied workers to areas of need.
Home Affairs has taken on work dealing with supply chains and restocking supermarkets in response to panic buying, and redeployed staff usually working on visa management and other tasks that required fewer staff during the crisis.
As the lines separating issues and policy areas blurred, the public service had to provide responses that involved different agencies and departments, Mr Pezzullo said.
"Departments and agencies have to work together in non-traditional ways."
Mr Pezzullo said looking to the past had helped him better understand the national challenges that had emerged during his career. He described the latest, COVID-19, as having a tragic toll.
History, including the aftermath of World War I, the pandemic of 1918-1919, the Great Depression and World War II, allowed him to also put the coronavirus into perspective in responding to the pandemic.
"You look at how previous leaders, previous societies, previous political systems had dealt with periods of great stress, and it gives you confidence that 'hey, look we've got this', in the sense we're better off, our communications are better, our cohesion's better, our ability to transmit information's better," he said.
Mr Pezzullo said the Queen's Birthday recognition was humbling, and an honour he shared with his staff and family.