Service bosses react to employees' rule-breaking election campaigning

By Harley Dennett

May 26, 2016

Both the Australian Public Service and the Australian Defence Force are dealing with reports of employees taking liberties with the rules of election caretaker period and campaigning at work or in uniform.

On Wednesday the ADF chief Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin wrote to all service members expressing the urgency of complying with the rules of neutrality.

“There is no limit on holding personal political opinions and expressing them as private citizens. However, to preserve the ADF’s political neutrality, it is essential that members of the ADF do not associate or identity the ADF with the expression of their private opinions.

“Associating the ADF with private views may give the impression to other members of the public that the ADF endorses or agrees with particular points of view.”

The list of banned activity includes taking part in political activities on Defence premises and wearing uniforms or publishing pictures of ADF members in uniform on political websites and social media when referring to political activities. Those who are campaigning in their own time are also forbidden from referencing their rank when doing so.

Officers who are candidates for election must transfer to the Standby Reserve, but as they remain ADF members are still subject to those rules unless they choose to resign entirely — few do.

Binskin did not name the two running candidates most notably violating of the rules during this election — West Australian Liberal Canning MP Andrew Hastie and Queensland ALP candidate Pat O’Neill — but few could have missed the media coverage and internal disquiet among ADF members at their actions. Nonetheless, Binskin addressed their rule-breaking, saying they face disciplinary action and the members must remove any public material that associates the ADF with their political activities and cease making such associations.

A third candidate who was dismissed from the Australian Army following an earlier candidacy, successfully won his case for reinstatement in the Federal Court earlier this year on the basis that criticising ADF policy on women, Islam and personal attacks on gay and transgender ADF colleagues while serving as a Reserve member and running for office were protected under the implied freedom of political communication. Defence is appealing that decision before the full bench of the Federal Court.

An unresolved theme in these events is the uniquely narrow definition Defence uses to describe political activity. Under Defence policy and legislation, “political” prohibitions refer only to activities explicitly linked to political parties, whereas, as the federal judge ruled, political expression under rest of Australian law and political science is much broader.

Unions, photocopiers and being respectful

Commonwealth public servants have fewer restrictions, due to the lack of uniforms, but the Australian Public Service Commission has its own problems this election with the ongoing dispute over unresolved enterprise bargaining agreements. Earlier the APSC issued advice for agencies, and now it has followed up with a warning for officials who use government property to participate in party political activity.

Neither work time, nor Commonwealth resources can be used for party political purposes, the APSC advised, but officials can discuss the election campaign at work or on social media — within limits. The Commission states:

“Australian Public Service employees should remember to be respectful of others’ opinions and have regard for the need to maintain harmonious workplace relationships. Australian Public Service employees should not have conversations where they can be overheard by members of the public that, for example, advocate for a particular party.

“Broadly similar principles apply in the caretaker period that operate generally. Employees should be sure that any comments they make on social media do not seriously call into question their impartiality. This includes ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ material posted by other users, which will often be seen as an endorsement of the views expressed in those posts.”

Clarity can be source from several sources, including PM&C’s guidance on the caretaker conventions or the APSC’s guide APS Values and Code of Conduct In Practice or by contacting the Ethics Advisory Service on 6202 3707 or to ethics@apsc.gov.au.

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