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Australian Public Service Commission’s new social media guidelines go too far

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Ulrich Ruegg Ellis was a pioneering member of the Canberra Press Gallery and a government stirrer who stretched the limits of public servants’ freedom to criticise ministers and their government.

His case came to mind as I considered the latest Australian Public Service Commission guide “Making Public Comment on Social Media”.

In April 1945 Ellis, who by then was working as deputy-director of public relations in the Department of Post-war Reconstruction, wrote an acerbic letter to the Canberra Times.

It began: “Sir,—When a Minister of the Crown issues decisions with the carefree abandon of a child of three and laughs with contempt in the face of the common principles of administrative justice, it is time not only to protest but to remove him from an office which he is no longer fit to hold.”

He concluded: “As the Minister has proved himself unfit to administer his Department, the time has come for the establishment of a publicly conducted Housing Priority Committee so that the work of allocating houses can be carried out in the broad light of day.”

He signed it Ulrich Ellis, Hotel Kingston, Canberra.

Given his unusual name there was no hiding his government employment.

Housing was extremely scarce in Canberra at the time and Ellis explained that upon his transfer to the ACT in the previous year he had sought to exchange his Melbourne home with a person who had been transferred from Canberra to Melbourne.

He was informed that such an exchange was contrary to the policy of the Department of the Interior and could not be sanctioned under any circumstances.

He accepted the decision but later discovered that the minister had stepped in to provide a late-comer with a house in Canberra over the heads of everyone else on the list.

Today I suspect that such a revelation would place the minister’s job in jeopardy.

In the event Ellis was carpeted, charged under the Public Service Act, admitted his guilt and was fined a total of £2 by his Department Head, Dr H.C. (Nugget) Coombs.

The debate over public servants’ rights to engage in public discussion of political issues has a history going back even further than this.

In 1908 the Labor Party conference resolved to give full political and civil rights to all government and municipal employees.

The following year, with Labor elected to office, the government repealed the regulation that prohibited its employees from discussing political issues and promoting political movements and replaced it with a less restrictive regulation.

The new social media guidelines published last week are a descendent of this regulation.

They make it clear that public servants, as members of the Australian community, have the right to participate in public and political debate.

They remind public servants that as employees of an agency, people will assume that they have a high level of knowledge about what their agency does and their comments have a strong capacity to affect their agency’s reputation.

“If you have serious concerns about the way in which your agency is being run there are proper ways to report these. Posting on social media is not the answer.”

There should be no dispute about that.

And if you can’t live with what your agency does, you should change agency or resign, not blab on websites.

But the new guidelines go further. They say: “As an APS employee you are required to serve the government of the day professionally and impartially, including through your agency or portfolio Minister…….Criticising your Minister, or the Prime Minister, is just as risky as criticising your agency. Equally, criticising your shadow Minister, the leader of the Opposition, or the relevant spokesperson from minor parties, is also likely to raise concerns about your impartiality and to undermine the integrity and reputation of your agency and the APS generally.”

How far does this extend?

I asked Public Service commissioner, John Lloyd, if this restriction extended to a situation where a middle ranking public servant spoke out or wrote critically about a major issue that was not in his/her portfolio.

Say, for example, an employee in education or health spoke out about the government’s policy on the Barrier Reef? Or, to take a past case, an employee in the Industry department spoke out or engaged in protests against the government’s moves to invade Iraq?

He responded: “An APS employee should not make public comments that seriously call into question their impartiality, or which fail to uphold the reputation of their agency or the Australian Public Service. In most cases this will mean that APS employees are able to make sensible, constructive comments about matters not affecting their current or recent agencies.”

You can make of this what you will. I take it to mean that a public servant in industry could join a protest movement campaigning against preparations for war or an employee in education could campaign against Adani coal mining.

But a Centrelink employee might find himself or herself in hot water if he or she Tweets on the adequacy of the pension.

Everyone should by now be aware that you can’t regard a tweet, a posting on Facebook, or even an email in quite the same way as a private comment to a friend.

The guidelines point out that there’s nothing to stop your friend taking a screenshot of a private email.

Posting material anonymously, or using a pseudonym, doesn’t guarantee your identity will stay hidden.

Your digital footprint may make it possible to trace who you are and where you work.

But it is surely taking it too far to say that a public servant cannot send a private email to a friend criticising government.

It seems unfair to me that a public servant cannot make a private comment to a friend in an email.

If there was no intention to publicly criticise and the matter would have stayed private were it not for the recipient dobbing in the sender, then the email only differs from a spoken comment in that it is traceable and recorded.

The sender’s intention to have the exchange kept private must count.

There surely must be some way of enabling private social media intercourse without fear of big brother.



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