Mike Pezzullo is no stranger to media attention in Australia. Still, he might have been surprised to see his words splashed across the front page of a London newspaper last month, relaying to the world a message he initially directed to staff at the Home Affairs Department.
The drums of war, he told his employees, are beating. It was not Mr Pezzullo's first Anzac Day message but this one echoed louder. Since April 2020, Australia's relationship with China has unravelled and, in the United States, there is more continuity than change in the new administration's firm approach to the rising great power. China through its newspapers, its embassy in Canberra, and other channels, has taken to regularly berating Australia for its national security measures. The region is increasingly tense.
Amid all this, Mr Pezzullo's Anzac Day message caught attention for its choice of words - language that drew rebukes from a Labor state premier and even senior Labor federal MPs.
Mr Pezzullo later described his message as simply a "lament for peace". Critics felt it was inflammatory, and it's not the first time the senior bureaucrat has been at the centre of controversy. But the issues Mr Pezzullo raises need the consideration of the public service.
In national security and political circles, views on China have hardened significantly in the space of a few years. Where Australia seemed to muddle through foreign policy conundrums as recently as 2019, there's more certainty in government about the nation's interests and the nature of the threats it faces - although certainty is a dangerous thing in national security.
Mr Pezzullo's war and peace missive carried an implicit message about the role of the public service in handling the deteriorating regional security environment. He said Australia may reduce the chance of war "by our preparedness of arms, and by our statecraft". Whether the nation has adequately prepared its arms, and is effective enough in its statecraft, is wide open to question. The troubled submarine and navy frigate programs are just the beginning.
Australia's public service seems alert to the challenges posed by China's rise and increasing assertiveness, but there are other reasons to think it isn't yet equipped for the issues.
Findings in a policy brief last month from the foreign affairs think tank, the Lowy Institute, called for the Australian Public Service to recruit more Chinese-Australians and draw on their expertise to reverse a lack of understanding about China among policymakers. The policy brief found Chinese-Australians were under-represented within government agencies despite having knowledge and skills that would be valuable for policy relating to the rising superpower.
There are other signs the public service could be doing more. International relations expert Professor Michael Wesley in April said Australia's influence and authority in the south Pacific were at their lowest since the mid-1980s, despite the nation out-investing China in the region at a rate of more than four to one. The public service, and Australia's education system, may have a role to play in restoring influence. Professor Wesley called for Australia to help Pacific nations develop their public servants by bringing in significant numbers of people to study at secondary, vocational and university level.
The costs are high if the public service isn't prepared for the challenges growing from China's rise. It needs to be expert enough to temper any misinformed drum-beating of MPs with good advice, and capable enough to prepare the nation for the security challenges ahead, whether by delivering new military hardware or shoring up Australia's influence. There's no time to waste.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: