Who IS the boss around here?

Democracy, we are told, is government of the people, by the people, for the people. Yet in the last few months it seems we are to be controlled, not governed in the true sense of a democratic society. Dear Current Government: you work for the people. Just a reminder.

The first warning bells sounded with the appointment of Tim Wilson to the Human Rights Commission. I waxed lyrical on that over three articles, which you may entertain as background material if you wish. As expected, the next chimes were the proposed repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. I’ve expressed my views on that particular proposal in at least two articles. More background reading if you so desire.

Today I was shocked to see this tweet. Read the fine print very carefully, especially if you work for the Australian Public Service (APS).

Remember the case of Michaela Banerji? Michaela has an on-going battle over her anonymous use of social media. It seems the aim is that no Australian Public Servant is going to be allowed free speech. Yes, I do understand the contractual obligations of an employment contract. I do understand if you strongly disagree with your employer you may be best to seek alternative employment. On the other hand, public servants also have a right to have a voice in this, their country. The APS is a large employer.

At June 2013 there were 167,257 staff employed in the Australian Public Service under the PS Act. This represented a decrease of 907 or 0.5% from the June 2012 number of 168,164. Figure 1 shows ongoing and non-ongoing employee numbers from June 1999 to June 2013.  Source: ABS.

The working population of Australia is 11.5 million (rounded up).  I suppose restricting the political involvement of 1.45% of the working population is not statistically significant, but it is not what I believe Australia is about.

Once the precedent is set, will this spread to state employees and perhaps even local government employees?

In June 2013 there were 1,891,300 public sector employees. There were 248,500 employees in Commonwealth government, 1,450,200 in state government and 192,500 in local government.  Source: ABS.

Well, that is odd. Is it 167,257 or 248,500 employed in Commonwealth government? Government publications often confuse me with the numbers, although perhaps the PS Act has something to do with it.

Now we are talking about 16.4% of the working population. This is rather more significant than 1.45%.

16.4% is quite a drop. Back in 1997 it was 22% and in 1987 a whopping 30% of employees worked in the public sector.

In August 1997, 22% of all employees in Australia worked in the public sector. This was a decline from 30% in August 1987. Source: ABS

What other restrictions will be placed on employees of the public sector? I already know many live in fear and won’t speak out, even about living in fear of speaking out. Is this a healthy environment to work in?

That wasn’t the end of the day, however, as this image did the social media rounds as well.


Interesting. I can only see one post on Vanessa’s Facebook page, although perhaps she has another. I have asked her to send me details, but it may not be appropriate for her to do so given the above “advice”. I am also not a Facebook friend of Vanessa’s so I may have limited visibility of content.

Is this the result of the government spending $4.3 million trawling social media to see what we think of the policies?

As far as I can ascertain, Vanessa is not a public sector employee. So what were we saying about the NEED for free speech again? Perhaps I’m a little confused.  Does Tim Wilson have a view on this, I wonder?

Speaking of free speech, there is the question of defamation legislation. Surely if we are to be free to use the N word without constraint because that would restrict free speech, then defamation legislation has to go too? Perhaps the answer is, or was, on Vanessa’s Facebook page.

When I look at all these individual situations as a collective, I have to ask myself, again, is “1984” closer than we think?

Edited to add links to the following must read articles:

This is the story that just keeps on giving. Further articles on various aspects of the above are:

21 comments on “Who IS the boss around here?

  1. […] April 6 I wrote “Who IS the boss around here?” This image may remind readers of one of the topics of the […]


  2. How come Coalition MP’s post juvenile & insulting tweets & no Gov department threatens them. They are guilty of engaging finger before engaging brain.


  3. I am waiting for the additional ruling that anyone who accepts any form of welfare must not criticise TonY Abbott or his Government or their advisors.

    As an OAP I shall then go and sit on the steps of Parliament House and publicly starve!

    I wrote of my vision for the future of our country earlier today. I do no expect many to believe me – – –



  4. […] moved fast to publish an early analysis in her piece, titled “Who IS the boss around here?”, linking the ‘dob in a […]


    • 1984, Animal Farm..George really saw this lot coming, maybe not this far away time wise, but his projections & defining is proving disturbing.


      • Strangely, I was saying 1984 under the last government. This one is worse, but I see a very disconcerting trend from both major parties.


      • Agree entirely, I drew much heat for criticising Labor for their policies, back-flips and fumbling of important issues. Our Politicians and the current Political climate needs a severe overhaul.


  5. Anyone who thinks 1984 didn’t come true hasn’t thought it through. Or maybe hasn’t read it recently. Or glanced at the webcam on their computer or phone.


    • I nearly fell off my chair. This, I believe, is the shortest ever TheBabelFish comment in history. 🙂

      Glad you are on my 1984 wavelength. Scary stuff.


      • Haha, you may well be right. As a former Commonwealth public servant and CPSU office bearer I’m wondering if anyone has seriously considered the implications of this for any and all forms of trade union activity. The job description pretty much IS criticising the employer (the government). Maybe part of the rational for this is to deny the social media space to trade unionism in the PS. If I was still in the job I’d be going after this with everything we had, it’s outrageous and surely contrary to the High Court precedent on freedom of speech.


      • That was what got me: given your past, I did expect something more along these lines from you.

        Wondering if it will be raised on QandA tonight. Should be. As well as Noely’s issue of the lack of transparency about the Queen’s signature ….. or lack thereof!


  6. Great piece Robyn highlighting two elements of censorship from the ‘advocates of free speech’: censorship of staff, and the censorship of the public.
    With regard to censorship of staff [Australian Public Service (APS)] I think this is made possible due to a broad reaching ‘at all times’ clause contained within the APS Code of Conduct. http://www.apsc.gov.au/aps-employment-policy-and-advice/aps-values-and-code-of-conduct/code-of-conduct [third last dot point]. The free speech commissioner has correctly highlighted that public servants (I am one by the way) are aware of this condition when accepting employment. (Interestingly the commissioner is now bound by this clause, which of course he knows). What has always concerned me about this clause is it reaches across the professional boundary into private behaviour and uses broad value statements such as “good reputation” and “Employment Principles”. This means, of course, a public servants performance against metric is entirely ‘subjective’ not ‘objective’. Now while this policy change only affects staff within Prime Minister and Cabinet, I say watch this space, as PM&C is the lead agency: it is not uncommon for ‘lesser agencies’ to follow. Further, the proposed clause would punish ‘criticism’, what about punishing ‘sycophantic praise’?
    I think arguments which seek to equate APS staff engagement (including this code of conduct) with private sector employment agreements is false equivalence. This is because the Government, the employer in the case of the APS, sets the rules of the country within which all entities (including the private sector) operate. I doubt there would be a national wide protests over bank staffing policy, or a branch closure, or even if one decided to ‘call’ on the houses they have on the books and force 1,000 people into default. [I use the banking industry as I used to work in it]. Further, the code of conduct applies 24x7x365 due to the ‘at all times’ element. I have yet to learn of another common-law employment agreement where it would be possible for an employer to reach across and govern personal behaviour in ‘non-work time’ for such a large workforce.
    The censorship of the public, in this example DIBP issuing a warning of further action if something isn’t rectified, is very concerning. Even if there may have been a legal issue (such as defamation), I think this warning should not have been public; unless its purpose is to use this as an exemplar to others (watch what you write, we’re watching). I am not concerned Departments are watching the social media feeds. I think they should as the feeds are public (mostly) and being engaged in this way is the modern way to engage with the citizenry (Government 2.0 and all that). What I am concerned is an organisation, such as DIBP, issuing what appears to be a public warning (intimidate if you will). This is in effect a 600 pound Gorilla threatening to rip somebodies arms off if something isn’t fixed. Intimidation has no place in government engagement. Yet, sadly, with the proposed changes to 18C, intimidation (via threats of defamation lawsuits) is where the government seems to be willing to take Australia’s treatment of ‘free speech’.
    Lastly (I’ve commented way to long), I understand there is an appeal to the Federal Court with regards to Michela Banjeri’s case centered on the right of political expression. I keep my fingers crossed for a resolution which allows APS staff to retain their right to political expression; otherwise, as you note here, there is a lot of Australian’s who will continue to be silent lest they lose their jobs.


    • This is in effect a 600 pound Gorilla threatening to rip somebodies arms off if something isn’t fixed. Intimidation has no place in government engagement.”

      I’m not making a long reply, Paul, because your comment stands for itself. Suffice to say I love the quoted bit above. SO TRUE!


  7. An employer might be justified in asking for the resignation of an employee who bags the company publicly, but what if a public servant praised the government? Presumably that’s okay, that’s free speech, bagging the government is not. I am appealing against Centrelink over a pension matter and I am also a very vocal and outspoken critic of the current government. What if one of these trawlers after dissent decides that I should be “taught a lesson”? It wouldn’t happen? I’m no longer so sure, the public service is being forced into becoming an arm of the government, rather than a servant of the people.


    • Frank I have no doubt it could happen. Look at my fight for compensation. We were left destitute by the fight for our civil and human rights and it has cost us in ways we could never have imagined.

      And that was the Labor government! Since the change it is getting worse.


  8. The hypocrisy here is just astounding. We have the right to be a bigot rubbish at the same time they are telling Public Service they have no right to free speech? I can understand contractual ‘confidentiality’ that is a fair call in any sector, though if you are not saying boo about your job, nor using any information that you have acquired in your position, you should be able to say whatever you like?

    What would have happened to Greg Jericho has this been in place a few years ago? He copped a hard enough time, I shudder to think now. This needs to be stopped and the fact that the likes of the ABC are still not reporting it is reprehensible. From Operation Sovereign BS to “We just don’t want to tell you” re If Queen has actually signed off on Knights & Dames, to now this crap, seriously these guys have not even been in for year yet, what else is coming in regard to secrecy & stopping of free speech?!


    • I forgot about the Letters Patent when I was writing this! Yes!! One rule for them, another for everyone else. Serfdom may be the next major advance in Australia.

      Very worrying Noely. The whole thing is very worrying.


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