Freedom of speech (if you’re a boss or a bigot)

Hard on the heels of the fiasco over the “Bolt clause” in the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act[1] comes the news that the government is prohibiting public servants in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from criticising it in any medium, even anonymously, and urging colleagues to dob in violators. Except for the handful of people who took the government’s talk about free speech seriously, there’s no surprise here. But I’d like to respond to this from the “Freedom Commissioner”, Tim Wilson of the IPA, who says

“Ultimately public servants voluntarily and knowingly choose to accept these limits on their conduct when they accept employment”.

On the contrary, it seems clear from the report that, at a minimum, the interpretation of existing rules (allowing free comment in general, but not on matters related to your own work) is being tightened. For example, the kinds of comments made by Greg Jericho under the pseudonym Grog’s Gamut, which were considered acceptable in the past, now appear to be proscribed.

More generally,it’s important to remember that Wilson, like all propertarians, is no friend of free speech. Propertarians may oppose governmentally imposed restrictions on the speech of people who have no dealings with the government, but the standard position is that any employer, or landlord should be free to sack or evict, anyone they don’t like for any reason, including their political views. Of course (echoing Anatole France) the position is one of majestic equality. If you don’t like the views of your boss, or landlord, you’re entirely free to quit your job, or move out (but not of course to sleep under a bridge).

As for the government, the principle applying to public servants apply equally to pensioners, road users, beneficiaries of national defence and so on (that is, everyone). You knew what you signed up for when you decided to stay here, rather than doing the decent libertarian thing and seasteading or moving to Mars. So, if the government chooses to impose conditions on your political activity, you’ve got no right to complain.

Update It’s been pointed out in comments that the directive, from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet applies only to staff in that department and not, as I originally read it, to the Commonwealth Public Service as a whole. It appears to be a tightening of existing restrictions, but not, as I suggested above, a wholesale removal of freedom of political opinion. I’ve edited the post accordingly.

Even though the original post was overstated, the general trend is clear, as Jeff Sparrow points out here. The government is seeking to remove any restrictions on the speech of its powerful friends, while tightening restrictions on its enemies, in keeping with its general tribalist approach to politics.

fn1. So-called because the aim was to create room for racially offensive lies by people the government likes (such as Bolt) while ruling out lies the government dislikes, such as the Holocaust revisionism of Fredrick Toben. It turns out that drawing a legally watertight distinction between Bolt and Toben is more difficult than the government expected.

87 thoughts on “Freedom of speech (if you’re a boss or a bigot)

  1. To the best of my knowledge, Richard Ackland – not a journalist with whom I often agree or even sympathise with – is the only person who, in recent weeks, has pointed out a fact which should be obvious. Namely, that those politicians keenest to get rid of 18c are the same politicians keenest to maintain (indeed to strengthen) our defamation laws, which are now actually more absurd and punitive than England’s.

    For the preposterous (and, alas, briefly successful) attempt by Joe Cahill’s 1952-59 NSW government to extend these laws in order to protect dead people, see the Australian Dictionary of Biography‘s article on Cyril Pearl:

    http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pearl-cyril-altson-15048

  2. And, these contractual fetishists ignore that we never “chose” or “signed up” to these constraints.

  3. Couldn’t agree more John. Have just been having a rant about this on Facebook.

  4. p.s. It is certainly reminiscent of Howard’s successful attempt to stifle dissent in the community sector by threatening to defund them if they criticised the government. (By the way, I am trying to popularise Tony’s new title ‘Sir Pository’.

  5. The Abbott government is initiating a broad front of attacks on public servants. Their wages and conditions are under attack in the new round of enterprise bargaining. Basically, if the government has its way, real wages will remain static at best or even decline. Conditions will be rolled back and removed piecemeal. No new funding will be available for agencies. All pay “rises” (usually not even matching inflation) must come from existing budgets. This will mean no pay rises even in nominal terms or else it will mean staff reductions. Oh, except the Dept of Defence will be exempt from all this.

    * * *

    At the same time, there are leaks that the pension age will rise progressively to 70.

    “Australia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased by 0.1 percentage points but the rounded estimate remained at 6.0 per cent in February, as announced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)… The seasonally adjusted underemployment rate was 7.4 per cent in February 2014. Combined with the unemployment rate of 6.0 per cent, the latest seasonally adjusted estimate of total labour force underutilisation was 13.5 per cent in February, based on unrounded estimates.” – ABS. Youth unemployment is about 13%.

    So you see, due to our “critical labour shortage” ( <- sarcasm!) we have to press 65 to 70 year olds into the labour force.

    * * *

    I think we can be fairly certain that Abbott is about to go down the Budget Austerity route and drive Australia into recession. So we will BEGIN a recession with 6% unemployment and total labour force underutilisation of 13.5%! Imaginary Deity of your choice knows where it will end.

  6. It must be your youth JQ which prevents you simply turning off with a resigned yawn at such peripheral and unsurprising follies.

    Is is not always a matter of wonder at the stupidity or naive unworldliness which gets whistleblowers and less innocent spillers of beans and bile into trouble? If you can’t get a friendly lawyer to fix you up with a way of getting something on the public record in a way which is privileged and thereby do most of what you need to do as a whistleblower who doesn’t want to out himself than maybe at least you can be an anonymous critic of government by way of journalists who will probably respect your confidences to which you add just a little bit of intelligent camouflage (so even the journalist if ordered to disclose his source doesn’t have to name you). In the latter case, which is what you, JQ, are writing about, you can give a journalist adequate reason to assure his editor that he has a middle level public servant who is in the know telling him about AB&C. But the communications are all protected by, inter alia, temporary paid in advance mobile phone text communications or ad hoc email addresses used only from busy Internet cafés. OK, I’m missing some detail perhaps but I wouldn’t be if I was one of the public servants in question.

    Now here’s a go at seeing something in the government’s approach as represented by you, JQ, The first reason for banning critical comment by public servants in some department which is not the subject of their comments is that such conduct is likely to piss off the people doing the job for the nation in the department in question. Unless you supposing that they are doing a Mrs James Hird and circumventing the rules you think should apply to those in the frontline on the policy area under criticism. Surely not. We want our public servants to play things straight and not arrogate to themselves the right to play moral superiors like the Cambridge spies of eternal ill-fame.
    The second reason, likely to be seconded by loyal hardworking public servants in the department in question, is that a lot of people have opinions which are beyond their expertise to claim to be decisive or even important. You get pissed off with people criticising the work of the IPCC on scientific grounds who don’t in your opinion have the scientific standing to make those criticisms and I know that, equally, there are people who regard the pontifications of some of the medical great and good about climate change – on the AGW demands urgent action by Australia line – as well beyond irritating as well as fatuous, given the irrelevance of their qualifications and sources of information.

    On the 18C business are you comfortable with the idea of a law which empowers and requires a judge (not a jury of one’s peers or any other kind of jury if one can imagine an appropriately constituted one) to decide on the very subjective issues of offensiveness and insult (even, I would add, in the Brandis formulation’s sense of what a reasonable member of the community would apprehend to be the case)? The Jewish community, though, by majority, supporting 18C, in reality may not have been done any favours by the readiness of Ron Merkel to give his services to the bringing of a case by plaintiffs who would not all have won defamation actions against Bolt. What a pity Bolt wasn’t just sued for defamation by the respectable plaintiffs with a real grievance.

  7. More generally,it’s important to remember that Wilson, like all propertarians, is an enemy of free speech. He may oppose governmentally imposed restrictions on the speech of people who have no dealings with the government, but his position is that any employer, or landlord should be free to sack or evict, anyone they don’t like for any reason, including their political views. Of course (echoing Anatole France) the position is one of majestic equality. If you don’t like the views of your boss, or landlord, you’re entirely free to quit your job, or move out (but not of course to sleep under a bridge).

    That’s overstating matters and tarring all of them with the same brush. Many, like those at http://c4ss.org, want everybody to be lifted up and to have enough of their own resources to make Anatole France’s views an accurate and sound comment rather than an ironic reflection on a vacuous (because inaccessible) benefit.

    As for the government, the argument he makes about public servants apply equally to pensioners, road users, beneficiaries of national defence and so on (that is, everyone). You knew what you signed up for when you decided to stay here, rather than doing the decent libertarian thing and seasteading or moving to Mars. So, if the government chooses to impose conditions on your political activity, you’ve got no right to complain.

    Even the Lew Rockwell sort at http://www.lewrockwell.com consider those benefits conferred by governments to be fig leaves directing attention away from the coercion used to resource them, and so too illegitimate to be excuses for what governments want to do at all, let alone justifications.

  8. If you work in the ATO you shouldn’t be immune to sacking if you publicly disclose confidential information. But you should be free to ridicule, in a private capacity, immigration policy.

  9. Midars/Angus, you’re being tolerated for now, but keep it short and comprehensible or I’ll block you again.

  10. @ Ikonoclast (interesting self-image implied by the name: but then I suppose you acknowledge that it is others’ icons you seek out for destruction and not your own. Question though? Do you protect your own or not even recognise that they are your idols and icons?)

    Do you accept that public servants, indeed public sector employees generally, have been overpaid in the sense that they have had included in their remuneration packages (from long before remuneration package was even a working concept, let alone much used phrase) items of great value that add enormously the value they receive compared with employees of comparable abilities, conscientiousness and skills in the private sector. E.g. tenure, solvency of employer, indexed defined benefit pensions, etc.?

    What’s the problem with increasing the age of eligibility for the OAP to 70 – or 72 for that matter? Anyway giving incentives to people to stay in the workforce and not to draw the pension till much later? In a world where most oeople don’t have any old age social welfare provision from government how can we claim some moral imperative on the younger members of our community to give 65 to 70 year olds an old age of comparative luxury? I recall a very right wing American professor telling me that his father, a carpenter, would have indeed been unable physically to work at his trade beyond 60 or 65 but that he had in fact become a union official (Communist!) and so was able to go on working. But his point was a good one that the old 65 retirement age was not only in line with life expectancies 100 years ago but was realistic for people doing very physical jobs. Another reason for us not to stick religiously to 65 in the 21st century.

    Your suggestion that Abbott and Hockey will be the causes of a coming recession may be in line with the all party obsession with what is or is not a recession according to some current definition of recession (Gee whiz! Rudd and Swan did an amazingly good job of following religiously Treasury advice about September 2008 and may or may not have materially affected the quarterly figures for GDP that they prized so highly). But really, so what? A tiny movement in GDP and/or employment in our highly unbalanced economy where even the much vaunted service sector is little more that a happily parasitic hanger on to the earners of real bucks in foreign trade through our good fortune to discover ourselves on mineral rich territory from which smart people could extract and sell minerals and cause taxes to flow. Is that what matters in the long run or just the medium term?

  11. @John Quiggin
    Midrash is not Midas JG – to the contrary. Aha, have I borrowed an email address with a history? Interesting. But, for the present, allow me to wonder what was difficult to comprehend in what I wrote. And also, to suggest that your bloggers are sufficiently quick readers and thinkers to decide for themselves whether they wish to bother with Midrash’s attempts to be conscientiously thorough or skip him without having had to pay for the wasted newsprint.

  12. @TerjeP
    Presumably you don’t mean by “private capacity” “in private” but are saying they should be able to, e.g. write an satirical op-ed and have it published under their own name. My naive and open self says Yea. Obviously it’s up to the would-be writer to decide on the way he pursues a career path and may be content that a number of openings in the public service may not be open to one who has written certain articles for the wider public. And if the public service wasn’t so large there might be a serious public interest in public servants thus limiting their redeployment. In fact it mightn’t matter anyway if the public servant in question was known to be a good professional. It needn’t be much different from the case of the QC for hire appearing for and against the Crown.

    Is it not most likely that a somewhat paranoid minister or ministerial chief of staff, even department head, regards the hypothetical op-ed as evidence of disloyalty within the department and tries to find out where leaker A meets writer-critic B (our hypothetical article author)….

    And what if our hypothetical article author is in fact the Hon Sec. of Public Servants For a Humane Immigration Policy responsible, inter alia, for a pretty dashing blog which regularly pisses off people in the Immigration Department? Is that OK because it is only done with private computers after-hours?

  13. @ Fran Barlow
    I can see why Midrash wouldn’t like the equation to Midas (let alone “Midars” which slip raises very interesting speculations about its nature and point of origin) but maybe he’d feel different about Croesus, n’est-ce pas?

  14. Tim Wilson – isn’t he the Human Rights Commissioner? If so, he seems to be violating his own rule for public servants talking out of school.

  15. comes the news that the government is prohibiting public servants from criticising it in any medium, even anonymously.

    If somebody doesn’t mind can they put up a link to where this news was reported?

  16. @Midrash

    I think I have been gish galloped but here goes anyway.

    Calling myself Ikonoclast for an online pseudonym is a bit of an affectation for sure. At least I don’t call myself a Knight of the Bath or Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Groom of the Stool. No prizes for what Groom of the Stool means. Hint: it is indeed scatalogical.

    No, I don’t accept that public servants have been overpaid either today or historically in Australia. Their wages are not unduly high and have generally been in line with or lower than equal work in the private sector. Security of employment has been a bonus since monetarist and neoliberal policies pushed up the unemployment from the mid 1970s. Before that, low unemployment meant a new job in private enterprise could always be found. Conditions in the PS mostly matched awards for other workers doing similar work. Defined benefit super was a bonus which is now entirely phased out for new entrants. The super bonus perhaps made up for the slightly lower pay. Among other things public servants needed and still need job security and reasonable wages/salary in order to be able to make impartial decisions without fear or favour.

    The practical effect of forcing all people to stay in the workforce until they are 70 (as opposed to simply permitting it for those who elect to continue) in the current high unemplyment environment will simply be to force most of them on to unemployment or invalid benefits. There are not enough jobs to go round now. Did you not read the ABS unemplyment and underemployment statistics I quoted? Given that current policies have failed to generate adequate employment for all cohorts it benefits the young if the Over 65, if they wish and make way for new entrants in the workforce. The assumption that retired people are not productive is false. Many still homemake, care for student children and/or granchildren and do volunteer work etc.

    This is a recession now for the unemployed and underemployed in Australia. It will become a technical recession soon IMO. The fact that you don’t care about recessions means you don’t care that some people suffer from their effects. The general tone of your attitude is callousness and derision towards anyone affected by so-called “tough” policies which as always are designed to move more money from the poor to the rich.

    Finally, I am not sure what the rest of your post means so I can’t answer it.

  17. @ Ernestine Gross

    Far be it from me to argue Tim Wilson’s case, whatever it is, but I think you are wrong to say he was espousing a rule about public servants speaking out. Prof Quiggin quoted him as pointing out rightly or wrongly that public servants had agreed to a rule. Also he is not a public servant in the same legal (statutory) sense as those who are apparently to be curbed. He is no more and no less doing public service than an MP, Ambassador or judge.

  18. Why stop at public servants? The federal government funds Australian universities to the tune of many millions every year, so should not those hotbeds of commie radicalism also have to toe the line and not disparage our benevolent overlords?

    And why stop at comments on social media? As I pointed out at uknowispeaksense public servants also vote, so perhaps that political activity should be denied them as well.

    Poor fellow my country…

  19. @Ikonoclast
    Good to find someone who knows what he’s talking about. Up to a point I agree with your answer about whether public servants are/were overpaid. Probably not now and I won’t try to argue the contrary. I hope you are right by the way in saying that defined benefit schemes are out now for all new entrants (and have been I trust for some time).

    When I knew a lot about such matters I was aware of nice pseudo-Keynesian social democrat Liberals like Dick Hamer (not to mention those with an ALP label like Don Dunstan) following Whitlam’s madly innumerate course with public sector superannuation. Of course it wasn’t all public servants who were being effectively overpaid in the late 1970s and 80s but the advantages of tenure and of defined benefit super, specifically the indexed pensions with a couple of their bells and whistles, did make one Public Service Commissioner of my acquaintance acknowledge the case for saying public servants were paid more than the market would have paid. (Nothing like being a male teacher in the 1930s I suppose, or indeed anyone on the public payroll or baker, grocer, butcher, flour miller or biscuit manufacturer – think Jack Brockhoff Foundation and don’t think I’m suggesting it’s all bad).

    Oh, before I forget and to show I am an omnivorous dinosaur, let’s not forget (and I am sure you have not) that women had to leave the service early in many cases because of marriage and anyone else who left early(i.e. before the age of 65 or achieving a disability pension) helped with their contributions the funding of the fat cats at the top. Of course there were people’s champions, curiously uncelebrated by fellow public servants, who beat the system; quite a few indeed but the prize winner may have been a lawyer in the Justice Department who went out on an indexed 70 per cent of salary whose alcoholism rendered him disabled….

    There is some quite good stuff in a series of Victorian parliamentary committee reports in the early 1980s on public sector superannuation though politics, mainly the internal politics of Labor preselections and union endorsements, got in the way of the needed reforms. Which was worse? The Hamer government having reduced the retirement age for public servants from 65 to 60 with virtually no actuarial adjustment plus the embarrassing 25 or 30 per cent of salary that the most senior public servants would have had to find to maintain their full high pensions (indexed, be it noted, to final salary, not three year average but final unlike the private sector) being reduced to a maximum of 8 per cent… OR the Cain government reducing the retirement age to 55 but with a more or less credible actuarial adjustment and the chance to commute pensions to a lump sum which, in retrospect at least, has to be good value for the state. An almost unrelieved misfortune of the Cain government amendments was the result of allowing police to retire at 50 instead of 55. Well, maybe good for the state finances because a 50 year old sergeant usually grabbed his $200,000 or whatever. The trouble was, for him, that he may have put it into a country pub and done his dough, and marriage probably. And… anyone who knew anything about nightclubs in the late 80s and early 90s could have told you what a disaster it was to have a police force deprived of a few older more experienced and mature members instead of all the new young coppers falling in with the old lags on the take and decidedly unimpressed by civil liberties for the lower orders. (That’s so you will know I am not emitting from deep wells of ignorance, and anyway might be of interest).

    But I concede we should no longer find that superannuation provision was a factor in the private v. public remuneration levels today. But I must point out something pointed out to me quite recently. The 1993 clean up of the Victorian public sector superannuation schemes by the Kennett government was (a) for the important one, more than undone for the MPs in 1997 who – in an all party effort which overrode the very proper National Party Finance Minister – gave members the option of converting to the more generous terms of the Commonwealth parliamentary scheme, (b) contained a funny little tweak based on dishonest anti-discrimination argument that meant that the old rule that the surviving spouse pension was only paid to someone married to the retiring MP before he/she retired from Parliament no longer applied. So, if the second “after-acquired” Mrs Cain, Mrs Kennett, Mrs Bracks, Mrs Brumby [I forget the mostly forgettable ones: I mean the Premiers] should they eventuate because of death or divorce and remarriage and the new spouse is young enough to outlive the older by 50 years there will have been a pension with lump sum value of about $3 million added. (Actually I forgot to add that the final coup was brought about in the state ALP government’s last year when an even phonier piece of anti-discrimination advice led to the removal of an actuarial rule that the spouse should, in calculating the spouse pension, be deemed to be no more than 5 years younger than the deceased. Mind you, by then, all new members were condemned to hard tack and dry rations. Even, I believe, Victoria’s current state Treasurer, is just a hard slogging defined contributions chap like the bulk of us, and unlike his long serving colleagues in the ministry.) As well as increasing life expectancy having made a nonsense of old pension schemes – and if I may anticipate return to the next subject you take up – all state provision for old age, we may yet find some spectacular cases of the old regime looking ridiculous. The “after acquired spouse” rule was already in place for public servants when Kennett’s and then Brumby’s merry men grabbed a bit for themselves…. So..

    How about a retired head of department, possibly long married and with children, shacks up with a person of the same sex in retirement and declares to the trustees that the de facto relationship to be the one that is to count for pension purposes (and it may be the only relationship anyway)? Now we not only don’t have to have the little woman rewarded for being at home bringing up children and providing a soothing environment for her frazzled hubby but same sex (and no other-defined sex we can now anticipate) and no marriage. If I were the retired chap’s (not so much if it was a chapess) kids I would be forestalling the chance of the nice nurse who bathed the old boy marrying him and then getting pregnant. I would fix him up with a strong Filipino male nurse who could do the heavy gardening and haul him out of the shower if he falls over – and won’t get pregnant. And a little prayer of thanks to those farsighted old bureaucrats and polis who found something still in the super pot to look after the truly deserving whose families believed in helping themselves. (Can’t help being prompted to wonder about Eddie Obeid’s claims on the taxpayer under this heading).

    The arguments you produce about retiring ages are not susceptible to quick answers or uncomplicated analysis. But I do point out that the increase in life expectancy since the retiring age was fixed at 65 and more recently its acceleration, combined with the increasing cost of dementia and other illnesses of the very old, is a huge, totally unplanned and unchosen impost on public finances. We have to make choices, and do implicitly anyway, and I’m not sure that swapping the 50 year working life of 80 years ago 35 or 40 year one now makes good sense. Maybe it would be worth trying a Rawlsian rule on it. What is more, the case you make sounds like the French Socialist one of reducing the retirement age to make way for the young (or to cook the unemployment figures). And why not? On your reasoning, shouldn’t we be thinking of reducing the retiring age?

    As to recessions and unemployment I am closing down for the night but point out that, far from underestimating the extent of unemployment I tend not to rely on the ABS figures but regard them as understating unemployment and underemployment, Whatever you think of Gary Morgan’s assertive political persona I think his much higher un- and under-employment figures are nearer the mark. So….. of course work is good for people as citizens and mentally healthy individuals, but it isn’t obvious that unemployment today has much relation to what it had in the 30s or even the 70s. That is the basis on which I am inclined to suggest that we don’t need quick fixes aimed at employment such as I well remember were commonly advocated in the 80s. ( I recall a young woman raking leaves in a local park as part of a government make-work program and bitterly complaining that the Philistines hadn’t got policies like those in Holland, or Denmark or wherever that paid artists to paint things). We are still very far from being the clever country such as we will need to be if we are to go on increasing our standard of living as we have in the last 20 plus years. Maybe Chinese and Indian talent will help if we don’t raise taxes so as to discourage them but I have another reason for not being a short termer anyway, also connected with the very different world we live in now compared with the comparatively poor decades before the 1990s. I take this to be true since it comes from a letter to The Australian from a former Deputy Secretary to the Treasury:

    “For example, over the past 20 years real incomes have increased by almost 50 per cent. Thus a significantly larger proportion of individuals and families are capable of taking care of themselves without government assistance, or with less of it.
    The main focus should be on those in higher income brackets who pay taxes but receive back a large proportion in forms of government assistance.”

    I would accept that the New Start allowance is inadequate (though we shouldn’t underestimate the reduction in the important parts of the cost of living resulting from cheap Chinese and other Asian imports and the hugely improved terms of trade) and the hopelessness still of many of those affected by mental or physical disability – including parents and carers who haven’t given up on the ill and disabled. But I’m not sure which of the ways in which you think a federal government might act to mitigate unemployment in the short run (More money printed? Well, maybe there would be something beneficial from the inflation that might follow from both more of our dollars and foreign currencies costing more. More money borrowed by government for make-work schemes? Or….? ) would pay off if we want to go on getting richer so there won’t be too much pain if we choose to look after elderly people well, improve our universities, build sea walls to protect seaside suburbs from rising seas etc. and of course make Australia economically competitive in a fast educating world. I wouldn’t be too sure, BTW, that it is going to be Abbott’s call – and not just because he’s diverting himself with trivia like the titles – but because I would expect Treasury to be singing much the same tune as it has sung for 40 years. I would tend to back Treasury despite its habit of getting forecasts wrong.

    I’m not sure what the point was that I was supposed to have made that you didn’t try and answer. I think you were pretty comprehensive.

  20. I forgot to say the prize winning bludger who retired on disability (alcoholism) grounds was 27! Actually that was an acknowledged expensive and inefficient feature of public service employment, and may still be though also extended now to the private sector. If you wanted to get rid of someone you’ld help him get a disability pension – easier for both of you.

  21. So your humble counter officer at Centrelink is not able to criticise any aspect of government?

    That is laughable. Do we now expect to see anonymous letters to the editor, written by scared public servants? Presumable followed up with attempts by the government to get the newspaper to hand over information that might help identify the “criminal”.

    What next? The ABC being told it may not criticise the government, and that will include asking questions that the government doesn’t want them to ask?

  22. desipis :
    TerjeP, here’s one article.

    Thanks. I managed to find that article after I posted but I’m trying to find some more detail on the actual policy. A libertarian colleague criticised Tim Wilson over this via social media but the reply from Tim suggested the policy was narrower that some of the reports implied and his endorsement far more qualified than some reports suggested. In terms of the policy it would be good to be able to go to the source. I sense the media reports may be half truths as is often the case.

    But likewise if the policy is a blanket ban that would be offensive. And the Liberals have plenty of form on doing offensive stuff.

  23. I am a public servant, working for the Department of Employment. I haven’t received any new instructions with respect to political speech on social media, so for now I’m assuming that the rules haven’t changed.

  24. Tim Wilson,
    Another IPA intellectual lightweight. Wow now there is a tautology and a half!

  25. This quote in the article from the new guidelines suggests that its a policy that only covers the Department of Prime Minster & Cabinet:

    “This means that if you receive or become aware of a social media communication by another PM & C employee that is not consistent with this policy, you should advise that person accordingly and inform your supervisor.”

    The policy seems to be in line with the principles that Wilson agrees with, as it appears to only limits criticism to the scope of that particular department:

    …critical or highly critical of the Department, the Minister or the Prime Minister…

    Storm in a teacup?

  26. I imagine the ‘Telegraph’ is referring to these employment principles http://www.apsc.gov.au/aps-employment-policy-and-advice/aps-values-and-code-of-conduct/aps-values-and-code-of-conduct-in-practice/managing-official-information, although a quick look doesn’t reveal when they were first published. The page also states they are under review, so there may well be a more recent draft somewhere. It would be nice if journalists would actually link to official documents when they refer to them, but I guess that is expecting too much.

    The guidelines are sufficiently subjective either to permit or prohibit all kinds of online commentary; e.g. “Are these comments in line with how the community in general expects the public service to operate and behave?” In the absence of valid, reliable data about what the “community in general” (whatever that means) expects, that kind of standard could be used to punish just about any serious criticism of the government or its members. “The community in general, c’est moi” I imagine someone like Christopher Pine or Cory Benardi would think.

  27. An APS employee must at all times behave in a way that upholds the APS Values and the integrity and the good reputation of Australia

    Now if you are me, being critical of the government is entirely consistent with this. Because a country where you can safely criticise the government is a good country, and a country where you can’t is not as good.

  28. At a Union meeting where unionists are discussing issues re fighting the government’s stance on pay and conditions, it is implicit that rank and file public servants will be making statements critical of government policy. Will this sort of debate be proscribed?

  29. “Will this sort of debate be proscribed?”

    Only if it “compromis[es] the APS employee’s capacity to fulfil their duties in an unbiased manner”; or is “so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a member of parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about the APS employee’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially”; or is “so strong in its criticism of an agency’s administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace”; or “compromis[es] public confidence in the agency or the APS”. Otherwise it’s fine, although it probably helps to wear the appropriate attire while doing it.

    I caution people against using these guidelines to attack Abbott and company until we know when they were published. For all I know they have been around for years and nobody noticed until now. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Kevin Rudd asked for something along these lines to be done, or at least endorsed it.

  30. @Ken_L the Code of Conduct is not new. As noted above the alleged additional restrictions on criticism of the PM appear to be restricted to staff at PM+C, in which case they are consistent with the Code as written. Obviously when it comes to a document as vague as the Code of Conduct, implementation is everything.

    I’ve been told that staff are now being encouraged to dob in colleagues who criticise the PM or Government on social media. If that’s true it’s a new practice, as far as I know.

  31. @Matt

    Matt I note that the ‘APS Commissioner’s Directions 2013’ (http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/F2013L00448) include in the code of ethical conduct “The APS demonstrates leadership, is trustworthy, and acts with integrity, in all that it does [which requires] … (f) reporting and addressing misconduct and other unacceptable behaviour by public servants in a fair, timely and effective way”. This could well be sufficient to cover the dobbing in requirement. The Direction was published under the Gillard Government. It would be nice to know exactly what JQ is referring to by “the news that the government is prohibiting public servants from criticising it in any medium, even anonymously” – John can you clarify?

  32. @Lyn Gain
    One of the commenters on today’s Guardian piece on the same subject, gave this reference. He said Eric Abetz in Jan 2014 called it the ‘most recent guidance’. http://

  33. @Ken_L

    Ken, I think a view about the context is more useful than a literal interpretation of ostensibly “motherhood” words. The Gillard law you refer to is the whistleblower legislation isn’t it? The context there was to open up internal operations to public scrutiny where public interest justified it, a tricky judgement call. http://www.theage.com.au/comment/new-whistleblower-bill-exposes-old-inadequacy-20130625-2ov2j.html

    We’re all in a bit of an information fog here, but your default position of giving Abbott the benefit of the doubt at this stage should be reversed, in my opinion. Wouldn’t you agree that for various reasons, it’s the Coalition which is less likely to protect free speech (Bolt excepted)? I’m not sure what principle justifies special treatment for PM&C public servants; so more likely it is the advance gambit for the rest of the PS: close control starting with the top department, then down.

    After all the policy failures and govt corruption of recent times, it seems out of kilter with much modern management thinking to start putting the fear of making the wrong call into public servants. For example, APRA’s report into the the NAB currency trading scandal a few years ago said “NAB’s highly regimented culture acted to impede transparency and mollify the message when it involved acknowledging concerns or difficulties at operational level.” (quote from ASIC website)

    I wonder if the control and command paradigm is more dominant in our PS than elsewhere in the world; diverse voices should not be a threat to leaders who can defend their authority on rigorous grounds; the low quality and inconsistency of messages is not unique to this government, but new forms of political accountability are needed between elections, given the decline of the mainstream media. The cacophony of interest groups are often dependent on government largesse or goodwill, the technicians and experts within government need a stronger voice, and not just after the horse has bolted.

  34. @kevin1

    “The Gillard law you refer to is the whistleblower legislation isn’t it?”

    No, as you could see by following the link. It’s not legislation at all.

    And I prefer to make my judgement on verifiable evidence and not on speculation about who I think is more or less likely to do something or other, because I recognise that when it comes to the Abbott Government I am a very prejudiced judge.

  35. I know I don’t always look back up as I keep up with comments, so in case others are like too that I’d like to mention that my comment of April 6th, 2014 at 19:20, no. 7, has made it out of moderation.

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