Abbott’s tyrannical silencing of 1,892,100 possibly critical political opinions‘It is tyrannical to forcibly silence critical political opinion with the threat of loss of livelihood’ writes Jennifer Wilson in her response the government’s threat to dismiss public servants who express dissenting opinions on social media.
The recent directive from the Department of Prime Minister and
Cabinet on the lack of freedom of speech public servants have as private
citizens, includes the expectation that government employees will dob
in colleagues they believe are criticising the government.
This report in the Guardian, linked above, begins with a declaration by Tony Abbott before he became PM:
There is no case, none, to limit debate about the
performance of national leaders. The more powerful people are, the more
important the presumption must be that less powerful people should be
able to say exactly what they think of them.
I’m baffled as to why this noble sentiment isn’t applied to public
servants. Engaging anonymously on social media is no protection for
them, as is evidenced by the sacking of Immigration Department employee
Michaela Banerji who tweeted critically of the department using a
pseudonym, and lost her job.
In subsequent action, Ms Banerji argued that there is an
constitutionally implied freedom of political communication for public
servants, however, the prospective costs of prolonged legal action
caused her to withdraw and settle out of court, leaving the claim
There are some 1,892,100 public servants in Australia, accounting for
16.4 per cent of the workforce. None of them are permitted to offer
personal political opinions critical of the government on social media.
It is unlikely that this restriction will be challenge by an individual.
The government has deep pockets and access to the best advice, when it
comes to defending legal action against it. Yet it would seem a matter
of urgency that a challenge to such tyranny is launched.
It is tyrannical to forcibly silence critical political opinion with
the threat of loss of livelihood. While no one can reasonably endorse
public servants using knowledge obtained in the course of their work to
criticise the government of the day, general personal opinion, of the
kind expressed by Ms Banerji in her tweets ought to be permitted, unless
the government is so insecure it cannot bear scrutiny.
A robust and confident government should not fear robust critique.
Politicians need to be reminded that they have their jobs only because
the electorate allows them that privilege. Stifling dissent will never
endear governments to the citizenry. Part of a politician’s job is to
weather the inevitable storms of criticism, and if they are too weak to
do this, they are too weak to govern a country.
Human Rights Commissioner for Freedom, Tim Wilson, has this
interesting take on the responsibility of public servants to the
governments that employ them, noting that respect and civilising
behaviour are the admirable goals of speech conduct codes.
As Mr Wilson once tweeted that protesters should have a water cannon
turned on them, his notions of civilised behaviour are likely
@timwilsoncomau Walked past Occupy Melbourne protest, all
people who think freedom of speech = freedom 2 b heard, time wasters …
send in the water cannons
Wilson also draws a comparison between criticism and respect, which
to my mind is totally false. Respect does not, and never has implied
inevitable agreement or lack of criticism. It is a very dangerous
conflation Mr Wilson makes, and it is especially concerning that the
Commissioner for Freedom (I still don’t know what that means) seems
unable or unwilling to consider the complexities of competing rights.
My sympathies are with the many people I know who work for the
government. To live in the knowledge that one must be constantly aware
of one’s speech for fear of losing one’s job is not how one expects to
dwell in a liberal democracy. It is absolutely unacceptable that so many
Australians must live this way, with the additional fear that a
colleague may at any time dob them in. I am at a loss as to understand
just what kind of society the Abbott government envisions for our
country. The tyrannical silencing of so many people because it is too
weak to withstand critical commentary, does not augur well.
If any public servant wants to be an un-named source, he or she is very welcome on this blog.
This article was first posted on Jennifer’s blog “No Place For Sheep” and reproduced with permission.