Home Affairs chief Mike Pezzullo has faced immediate backlash in the wake of his alarming ANZAC Day address to staff, in which he warned Australia of a looming war on our doorstep.
In a speech entitled “The Longing for Peace, the Curse of War”, Mr Pezzullo implored Australian diplomats fight for peace without threatening our “precious liberty” as tensions with China tighten by the day.
“In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat – sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer,” he said.
“We must search always for the chance for peace amidst the curse of war, until we are faced with the only prudent, if sorrowful, course – to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars.”
Mr Pezzullo said powers in post-WWI Europe dangerously ignored warning bells from Germany following the cataclysmic four-year war ending in 1918. By the time Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party usurped the rebuilding nation and turned it into an invading dictatorship 20 years later, it was “already too late”.
“(Europe) did not heed the drums of war which beat through the 1930s, until too late they once again took up arms against Nazism and Fascism,” he said.
“Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war.
“War might well be folly, but the greater folly is to wish away the curse by refusing to give it thought and attention, as if in so doing, war might leave us be, forgetting us perhaps.”
Home Affairs Minister Kate Andrews went into bat for the secretary after his “strong opinion piece” appeared on front pages across the nation.
Ms Andrews, who was made aware of the polarising address ahead of time, said Australia should remain “alert but not alarmed”.
The Australian’s editor at large Paul Kelly said the phrase “drums of war” was turned into ammunition against what he described as a “very balanced and measured” message.
But the tone of Mr Pezzullo’s address struck a particularly ugly chord with the nation’s opposition, with a number of senior politicians publicly condemning the secretary’s words on Tuesday.
Labor frontbencher and former opposition leader Bill Shorten slapped down Mr Pezzullo’s wording as “hyper-excited language”, claiming alarmist messages from public officials only generate more anxiety.
“I don’t understand why they’re using such inflammatory language,” he told Channel 9.
WA Premier Mark McGowan was particularly icy in his response, advising public figures “elected and otherwise, to tone it down” when speaking on issues of war.
“What good does that do, saying things like that? It’s totally unnecessary,” Mr McGowan said in Perth, via The Guardian.
“There may be elements in the community who cheer but it’s in no one’s interest, that sort of language.
“Diplomacy should be conducted diplomatically by people in elected office and also public servants. I suggest to them they don’t say things like that anymore.”
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong also criticised Mr Pezzullo’s war chatter, reiterating Mr Shorten’s call for less inflammatory language when addressing issues of geopolitics and conflict with a nation 70 times larger than Australia.
She called on the government to give the public a clear reason as to how such remarks are beneficial for the public.
“In national security, in diplomacy, words matter,” she said on Tuesday.
“It is really up to the government to explain how it is beneficial to Australia and how it furthers our national interests having a senior public servant make those remarks.”
However, Nationals senator Matt Canavan applauded the blunt take from Mr Pezzullo, reinforcing the need for Australia to keep alert and be prepared for conflict in the Pacific.
“I think on the balance of risks here we face too much minimisation of the threat, too much ignorance of how difficult things might get very quickly,” he told Sky News on Tuesday.
“I welcome Mike Pezzullo speaking frankly from his obviously very well-informed position because I do think the Australian people need a wake-up call.”
The latest controversy surrounding Australia’s handling of tensions with China comes just days after Peter Dutton said Australians needed to be realistic about China’s increasing militarisation in the South China Sea.
“I don’t think it should be discounted,” the Minister for Defence said regarding a potential war in the region.
“I think China has been very clear about the reunification and that’s been a long-held objective of theirs and if you look at any of the rhetoric that is coming out of China, particularly in recent weeks and months, they have been very clear about that goal.”
Mr Dutton stressed the importance Australia keeping channels of communication open to continue negotiating for peace.
“For us we want to make sure we continue to be a good neighbour in the region, that we work with our partners and with our allies and nobody wants to see conflict between China and Taiwan or anywhere else,” he said.
Chinese media hit back hard last week after the federal government ripped up the Belt and Road Initiative signed by China and Victoria.
Beijing’s mouthpiece the Global Times warned the “suicidal attack” could be met with “potentially crippling countermeasures”.
It followed a slew of trade sanctions imposed on Australian products by China, seemingly prompted by Canberra’s push for an independent probe into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
– with Frank Chung, NCA Newswire