As a former public servant I can tell you that notoriety is definitely a career-limiting trait to acquire. Perhaps this is even worse for the public servant whose notoriety lives on after he or she has left the service.
In 2010 I was outed by the Australian newspaper as the pseudonymous blogger of Grogs Gamut – a blog covering politics and economics, written while I was a public servant.
I was not sacked, because the department found that I had not written anything that was confidential or about my area of work. I was instructed not to tweet during work hours (fair enough) and that was it. I continued to blog, continued to write provocative posts including some critical of the Labor party’s asylum seeker policy – as well as more than a few that slapped the bejeebers out of Liberals including Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison (one was headed “Morrison goes for the gutter; Abbott is gutless; Hockey steps up”).
I left the public service in the middle of 2011 at a time of my own choosing and on wonderful terms with my bosses and colleagues.
Then, in early 2012, the Australian Public Service Commission introduced new guidelines for public servants’ social media/internet use. They were dubbed “the Jericho amendments” and included changes that precluded public servants from making comments online in a private capacity that are “so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the government, a member of parliament from any political party, or their respective policies, that the employee is no longer able to work professionally, efficiently or impartially”.
It is these and other additions to the APS code of conduct that have been cited by the high court in its unanimous decision to uphold the sacking of Michaela Banerji for anonymous social media posts that criticised the government’s immigration policy.
I don’t want to get too bogged down in the particulars of Banerji’s case – she commented mostly on areas of work that she was doing as a public servant. I was working in the film branch of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, and I did not write or comment on any policy in that space because I was worried that doing so would contravene the code.
But Wednesday’s high court decision has confirmed what has been in place since early 2011 – the guidelines were made stricter still in 2017 – namely that social media is a dangerous space for public servants, and they are now extremely limited in their ability to take part in modern life.
The decision effectively prevents public servants from expressing a political opinion, even if it concerns an area over which they have no influence or a workplace role.
This is because the APSC guidelines are not designed to ensure impartiality, but to make it easy for departments to sack people (and at this point we should pause to note that the latest head of the APSC, John Lloyd, was extremely well known for his political leanings ).
The guidelines themselves are a confused mishmash of advice. They suggest: “If you ‘like’ something on a social media platform, it will generally be taken to be an endorsement of that material as though you’d created that material yourself.”
So liking an article headed “ The government has run the economy into the ground ” or a First Dog on the Moon cartoon such as “ The government’s plan to have no policies is working better than anyone could have imagined ” is likely to be used against you in a disciplinary hearing, just as if you had written or drawn it.
But the same advice also says: “Public servants may participate in public debates about important public issues, subject to the restrictions explained in this guidance.”
So you can join a public debate but you cannot like something on Facebook that could be seen as overly harsh or critical of the government.
What other restrictions? Well, you are not allowed to “make personal comments about the character or ability of other people, including members of the parliament”.
But you are allowed to hand out how-to-vote cards because: “As a generality, public servants are not required to be politically neutral in their private lives, and handing out how-to-vote cards at an election is not a problem.”
So handing out how-to-vote cards which may contain suggestions that a candidate is in favour of a death tax or wants to privatise Medicare (ie, lies) is fine, but you can’t comment online in a way that may deem you not political neutral in your private life even – and I stress this – even if you do so anonymously about an area for which you have no oversight.
Now I’ll admit this area is vexed. I was actually unsure what I would do with my blog if the Coalition won in 2010 because I knew that would make writing it much more problematic.
But we are at the point now where retweeting a comment on Twitter , or liking or sharing critical posts on Facebook, or even sending an email to a friend that is overly critical of the government is verboten because – get this – “There’s nothing to stop your friend taking a screenshot of that email, including your personal details, and sending it to other people or posting it all over the internet.”
After the 2011 guidelines came into place most of my APS friends locked their Twitter accounts and a number deleted them. After the updates in 2017 many have even stopped using Facebook.
Their fears are justified – government departments will trawl social media when looking to discipline someone, and all it needs is a personality clash with a senior officer (or even someone who perhaps you have had a falling out with, who decides to pass on some social media comments) and you can find yourself having a chat with HR justifying why you should not be disciplined or even sacked.
What these rules and the high court decision fails to take into account is that social media is fully part of modern life. Most people who enter the APS do so out of a desire to work for the public good. They often have understanding of the areas in which they work – and will in many cases have studied the issues.
Once they enter the APS they must now shut off that aspect of their lives. In a world in which you could only be heard if you were on a stage with a bullhorn at a rally, or writing opeds in newspaper, that might have made sense. But our world is no longer organised that way.
There will always be grey areas, and no public servant should think they have carte blanche to say what they like. But the reality is that on the basis of this week’s ruling, public servants are denied participation in an area of life the rest of us take for granted – and which is nothing more than what constitutes living in a democracy.
• Greg Jericho is a columnist for Guardian Australia