Abbott’s tyrannical silencing of 1,892,100 possibly critical political opinions

9 Apr

GovernmentThe 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 untested.

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 unreliable:

@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.

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19 Responses to “Abbott’s tyrannical silencing of 1,892,100 possibly critical political opinions”

  1. mix1127 April 9, 2014 at 7:53 am #

    Thank you for this post. You know my views on these things. Suffice to say (as Jeremy Bentham once wrote) “Tyranny and anarchy are never far apart”.

    Like

    • doug quixote April 12, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

      Believe it or not, this is a public blog and not a one-on-one chat site or a private email.

      I for one have never heard of you, and a little exposition of your views might be desirable. In particular, how in this case are tyranny and anarchy never far apart?

      Like

      • Anonymous April 12, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

        My apologies Doug Q. I’m one of those public servants who has been (unhappily) silenced and my comment was directed to the blog author, Jennifer. I support what she has written. My fear is that this gag has the consequence (intended or not) or eroding trust and respect between govt and bureacracy, as indicated in various reports in the media over the past week. Quoting Bentham was a cheap retort, but it was the first thing that sprang to mind. I value my job and so I must remain silent. That’s hard.

        Like

  2. uknowispeaksense April 9, 2014 at 8:04 am #

    Reblogged this on uknowispeaksense and commented:
    I have a fair idea what sort of society this government wants.

    Like

  3. Darryl Adams April 9, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    Tim Wilson seems to think that employment contracts trumps free speech.

    One thing he fails to realize that most public servants where employed before social media policy existed.

    However when I made my infamous tweet during the #mtr shitstorm when she attacked you there was no policy at all, but the later codified was applied retrospectivly.

    The scary thing is that many Public Servants are on board with this new policy, partly because they want the nominated spokespeople to have a monopoly on speech, and that HR can use these policies to justify their growing power in the organizations.

    Like

  4. hannahquinn April 9, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    Reblogged this on The Kettle Press and commented:
    Abbott silences whoever on whatever. Now he demands public servants dob in a mate who criticises the government on any issue on social media, even in a private capacity. He’s trying for tyranny, but obviously he is afraid of us. Remember this: Abbott is a Harper light, the Tea Party light, and a bully light. His aim is to stave off any public knowledge of his methods, failures and intentions in order to remain unscrutinised for the next election. It is not something Australians will tolerate long. It is time he stopped campaigning for 2016 and tells us how he is governing in 2014. #onetermtony

    Like

  5. denniallen April 9, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    Saddam Hussein silenced his critics. People were terrified to say anything critical as they didn’t who would dob them in. Friends, family, neighbours, co workers…nobody trusted anyone else.

    Like

    • paul walter April 9, 2014 at 10:28 pm #

      Now, that gets exponentially closer to the realities and in a few well timed words. That’s an EXCELLENT metaphor for what is going down and best of all, no Godwin at the end.

      Never mind people.
      It could be worse.

      YOU could be Tim Wilson, my example of what you become in the next life if you are sinful in this one.

      Like

  6. hudsongodfrey April 9, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    Don’t get me wrong here, I think old Jeff was great on the freedom of speech and stuff, it’s just that in contemporary language Lenny Bruce was better, “If you can’t say fuck, you can’t say fuck the government.” That’s how I feel about Abbott. We’re in the middle of a three year long nightmare and I just want to sleep one day late in 2016 when I can wake up and breathe the air of freedom once more….

    In the meantime I feel Godwin’s law sneaking up on me, but have to add a note in relation to Tim Wilson’s SMH piece. If, as Abbott thinks, Public Servants have a responsibility to dob some critic of government, whose actions I can only imagine are seen as tantamount to treason by their political masters, then the Nuremberg trials proved conclusively that even the military have some moral responsibility to baulk at human rights violations. How Tim Wilson could overlook that is beyond me? Perhaps he will next be telling us that he hasn’t heard of or formed any opinion in relation to Wikileaks, Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning. These are the times we live in and those are the people and organisations who’re meeting the challenges we face. Messrs Abbot and Tim Wilson have failed!

    Like

  7. helvityni April 9, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

    When Abbott became our PM I immediately became a swearer, I’m effing this and effing that all day long, I even use the c word, my dear mum would be horrified but she would understand, she would blame Abbott, and bloody rightly so….

    Like

    • paul walter April 9, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

      Helvi, am shocked..you mean, you called him a cad? God bless you, blossom.

      Like

      • helvityni April 12, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

        🙂

        Like

  8. megpie71 April 9, 2014 at 11:44 pm #

    As I’ve said elsewhere – I used to work for the Federal public service during the Howard years (2001 – 2006). The standard rules applied about speaking about what you did for a living – basically the convention is that public servants don’t comment on government policy because it’s the Minister’s job under the Westminster system (and thus if they do, they’re causing demarcation problems). The Howard government also issued similar rules about not spreading alarm and despondency (or speaking out of turn) toward the end of my time in the public service (around 2005), advising everyone to keep quiet and not alarm the media. There were strictures issued for discussions in public, in public places, in workplace situations, and over the telephone and internet.

    Now, the main aim of all of this at the time was an attempt to shut down the public service gossip networks. A futile attempt, but understandable of a government which had by that point managed to make itself obnoxious to most of the people working for it in two of the safer Labor seats in the country (Canberra is a public service industry town, and if you heave a brick there, you’re likely to hit someone who either works for the federal government, is related to someone who works for the federal government, sells things to the federal government, or sells coffee to the other three types).

    As I mentioned, these rules came into place toward the end of my time with the federal public service, toward the end of the third term of the Howard Liberal government. If our current bunch of Glorious Leaders need to be issuing rules like this now, only seven months into their first term in office, then it’s yet another indication they have no idea what they’re doing, and are hoping by gagging the public service the word won’t get out. Unfortunately, it appears to be having rather the opposite effect. Funny, that.

    Like

    • paul walter April 10, 2014 at 5:03 am #

      Karma?

      Like

  9. Team Oyeniyi April 14, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    Jen, I am a little late to the party, but we are SO SO SO on the same page.

    Seeking comment from public servants is hard – too many are too scared. Mouths to feed, school fees, mortgages or rent. Many do not have skills transferable to the commercial world, or they believe that to be the case.

    Situation is very sad.

    Like

  10. Florence nee Fedup January 5, 2015 at 8:15 am #

    They might be able to shut PS up but what they cannot control, is their vote in the long run.

    Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Abbott’s tyrannical silencing of 1,892,100 possibly critical political opinions « The Australian Independent Media Network - April 9, 2014

    […] article was first posted on Jennifer’s blog “No Place For Sheep” and reproduced with […]

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  2. The freedom to offend | No Place For Sheep - May 13, 2015

    […] about Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson’s infamous “Occupy Melbourne” tweet; this piece I wrote about Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tyrannical demand that public servants “dob […]

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