Though shalt not criticise


The Australian Public Service Commission has released its updated guide to social media use by Federal public servants. The guide, Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees, leaves absolutely no room for employees to make critical comments of any of their ministers, superiors, or departments.

Furthermore, it suggests public servants are liable to be disciplined even if they don’t promptly delete a critical post on their social media account by an outsider.

First brought to light by a critical article in The Australian newspaper, the nine-page, 3,000+ word guide goes into some detail as to what is and what is not acceptable.

Now listen up!

“As members of the Australian community, Australian Public Service (APS) employees have the right to participate in public and political debate,” the document begins.

“But this is not an unlimited right. APS employees have particular responsibilities under the Public Service Act 1999 that come with being employed as a public servant by the Commonwealth of Australia. In some cases, these responsibilities limit their ability to participate fully in public discussions, including on social media.”

Criticism is a definite no-no. Whether it is the employee’s current agency, Minister, previous agency, or observations of a person, the guide is clear to begin with: “Criticising the work, or the administration, of your agency is almost always going to be seen as a breach of the Code. The closer your criticism is to your area of work, the more likely this will be.”

The guide then goes on to warn that critical posts are not allowed after hours or in a declared private capacity, or even anonymously: “Even if you don’t identify yourself you can still be identified by someone else.”

And just in case you’re wondering, your right to freedom of speech is, well, worthless: “The common law recognises an individual right to freedom of expression. This right is subject to limitations such as those imposed by the Public Service Act. In effect, the Code of Conduct operates to limit this right.”

The commissioner responds

The Australian Public Service Commissioner The Hon John Lloyd has responded to the detailed article published by The Australian newspaper, declaring it to be misrepresentative:

“The use of social media by employees requires discretion and judgement,” he writes. “For this reason it is important that all employers, including those in the APS, ensure their employees clearly understand the expectations of their behaviour when they use social media.

“The APSC consulted extensively with APS agencies and employees in late 2016. This consultation indicated that the policy settings did not need to change, but that current obligations were not well understood by employees. The CPSU encouraged its members to participate, and made a submission.

“It is not more restrictive than previous guidance. Rather, it clarifies the parameters around what public servants can and cannot say, and should give greater confidence to APS employees when they are participating online activity. Submissions to the review indicated that aspects of the previous guidance was unclear and ambiguous, and that revised guidance should be simpler and easy to understand.”

Straight from the Trump playbook: The Greens

Greens employment spokesperson Adam Bandt MP slammed reports in The Australian that the Turnbull government will impose restrictions on public servants criticising his government on social media.

“There must have been a few paragraphs missing from the leaked Trump/Turnbull transcript, because this latest crackdown on the public service is straight from the Trump playbook,” said Mr Bandt.

“If anyone challenges Trump, they get fired. Malcolm Turnbull, in his desperation to hang onto power, is trying to do the same.

“Holding public servants responsible for what others post on their page is the stuff of the thought police. Your job shouldn’t be in danger because someone shares a post on your page about marriage equality or action on climate change and you don’t delete it.

“This is a ruthless assault on freedom of speech that would make any demagogue proud.”

The guide, Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees, is available here.

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