Should Department of Defence public servants have greater restrictions on their private associations or political views than other public servants?
Defence secretary Dennis Richardson evidently thinks so, signing a joint directive with the chief of the defence force Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin forbidding civilian employees from privately associating with political groups that hold a broad scale of offensive views, ranging from extremist and violent to bigoted and discriminatory on any basis.
Not since the Communist Party of Australia was briefly banned by the Menzies government in 1951 has there been such a restriction on private activities of a major line department’s employees.
The joint-directive — “Association with unlawful or inappropriate groups by Defence personnel” — was signed September 10, 2014, just two days before the public warning of a potential terrorist attack by then Australian Security Intelligence Organisation chief David Irvine.
Under penalty of sanction in accordance with the Public Service Act 1999, Defence’s civilian employees “must not associate with, join or remain a member of groups or associations who engage in unlawful activities or engage, promote or espouse behaviours that are inconsistent with Defence Values“.
Some existing restrictions on on-duty or identifiable uniformed personnel have been extended to public servants, whether at work or not, such as prohibitions on “advocating supremacist material which is offensive or belittling to other groups”.
Richardson states the new restrictions on private association constitutes a lawful and reasonable direction under the act.
The warning to employees suggests offensive associations, including the lawful variety, “poses significant reputational and security risk for Defence”.
Failure to report known associations of others is also a violation of the directive. Managers are encouraged to look for warning signs:
“Managers at all levels must remain alert for signs of association by their staff with groups that may damage the reputation of Defence, pose a security risk or involve potential criminal or disciplinary offences. Early detection and intervention can reduce the risk to Defence and can protect Defence personnel. Indicators that a Defence member is associating with a group of concern could include possession or display of literature associated with such groups, related ideology, doctrine, emblems, or changes in behaviour.”
The Defence Department is halfway into a five-year cultural reform program, “Pathway to Change”, with emphasis largely placed on changing the attitudes and behaviours of uniformed men of all ranks.
Defence leadership has been struggling to deal with the reputational damage of uniformed ADF members joining extremist or nationalist groups opposed to immigration, especially of particular religions and ethnicities, as well as acceptance of sexual and gender diversity. The failed case of an Army reservist charged under the Defence Force Discipline Act 1982 last year also highlighted that the existing provisions did not cover reservists, as was commonly believed.
The Mandarin is not aware of any recent investigations of civilian Defence employees for behaviour or associations now prohibited by this joint-directive.
The new restrictions apply to all civilian staff, regardless of whether they work on a military base, headquarters, or in community roles including those whose duties do not require a security clearance or necessarily involve contact with those who do hold a security clearance.
Defence APS jobs currently advertised include roles for psychologists, ICT help desk support, analysts, project managers, social workers and school liaison officers providing support for children of Defence members.
More at The Mandarin: ‘Bastion of white men’: Anzacs haunt Defence in culture reform