Opinion: Public servants should not be judged for the opinions they hold as citizens of their nation

By James Mortensen

February 1, 2021

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The Capitol riots were a spectacular demonstration of just how fragile American democracy has become. In response, commentators in Australia have taken to unpicking how such an event could arise – and how to inoculate our democracy from the sickness that the riots represented.

We should acknowledge that there were aspects of the US democracy that prevented this fiasco turning into an abject catastrophe – Trump did all he could do circumvent the democratic foundation of the nation, and yet democracy prevailed.

So, while Australia should certainly take stock of the ills affecting the US – issues of alt-right subversion, especially – there are also some positive lessons to take from Trump’s exit. We should consider how the most powerful position in the country was given to a person like Trump, and yet the government endured to see him ejected from power.

There are a few reasons why this is – the independence and resilience of the media and the work of the Supreme Court stand as two key examples. However, a crucial block to Trump’s ambitions came from the nation’s public service, many of whom “…were decisive in sustaining American democracy”.

Throughout that administration, we saw the ‘revolving door’ of public servants fired, shelved and resignations, and the principled stances against his efforts from within the bureaucracy. We also read the tell-all books, open letters and candid opinions, and we saw the tense press conferences and public spats. The constant stream of commentary (both implicit and explicit) from the bureaucracy was instrumental in shaping public discourse on Trump’s presidency – especially given Trump’s desire to control public opinion.

Now, it has come to light that in the final days of the administration, Trump sought to use the US government as a litigant to bring suit against state ballot results — a request scuttled by his own bureaucratic appointees. American bureaucrats from the very top to the very bottom of the hierarchy were instrumental in enriching the public discourse on the Trump presidency, and ultimately they were instrumental in preventing the litigious mess of his final days from becoming much, much worse.

A matter of rights

I believe we should question how similar scenes might play out in Australia. Because while the American bureaucrat is a politically legitimate public actor, in Australia, a bureaucrat is not. ‘Legitimate’ in this sense speaks not of a public servant’s right to vote or have opinions, but rather the freedom – or responsibility – to inform public political discourse.

US public servants have a constitutionally recognised right to free speech that their Australian counterparts do not have. Nor are American bureaucrats limited by codes of conduct; while bureaucrats are expected to be non-partisan in fulfilling their duties to the US government, they are not limited in voicing of their personal political opinion — as long as it is outside the context of their employment.

Of course, the other big reason for this difference is that, in the US, senior bureaucrats are appointed by the administration. American bureaucrats – even appointed ones – are still expected to act impartially; however, the recognition of their political bent (or apolitical one, as it may be) becomes a feature by which they are judged rather than a barrier to them serving at all. Of course, such a system means that heads of department are often partisan choices – a prospect that seems barbaric here in Australia.

I would certainly not argue for the adoption of such a system here in Australia. However, it goes to show how important the political views of bureaucrats are in the US. The political expression of American bureaucrats is deemed valuable rather than unsightly, and this political expression has a huge effect on the political discourse of the nation.

…And a matter of public interest

Public servants are not drones, nor should they be treated like irresponsible children. Public servants are politically savvy; they are deeply invested in their nation’s wellbeing and they are uniquely placed to view the needs and capacities of our society. To keep them silent is to stymie public discourse in a very real and powerful manner; it would be hard to imagine the Trump presidency without the key voices of many of America’s public servants.

Further, a public service that is barred from political discourse is one that is valued more for what it gives up than what it stands for. We choose to judge public servants on what they don’t say rather than what they actually do. Bleached of their political value, public servants are seen purely as facilitators. If they choose political expression as private citizens over their designated facilitation, they should expect to be looking for a new career in the near future. Such a view suggests that we do not trust our public servants to put the good of the country above their own preferences unless they publicly forgo the role of citizen.

I do not doubt that Australian bureaucrats have genuine care and passion for this country – that’s why I believe they should not be put in a position whereby they would have to risk their careers to speak up for what is in the public interest. Public servants should be judged on the benefit they bring to the nation, not the opinions they hold as citizens of that nation. We don’t need politically appointed bureaucrats to do this — we just need to safeguard a bureaucrat’s right to political speech, better balance the national interest against government desires, and build more robust whistle-blower protections.

Politics is a passionate game – it makes sense to try and keep that passion out of the machinery of government. However, recent events in the US have shown us that the machinery of government can be spectacularly abused, and the public service integral to maintaining it against such abuse.

So, while in the past we’ve considered the political expression of our bureaucrats in terms of individual rights, we should also consider how it affects the fundamentals of our nation. Apolitical professionalism and cleanliness might make us feel more comfortable day-to-day, but we should ensure that this comfort does not risk the strength and security of our democracy.

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