5 April 2023

Public servants can have their own say on Voice, but they must remember who they are

| Chris Johnson
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Australian flag, Australian Aboriginal Flag, Torres Strait Islander flag.

Public servants are reminded that they have obligations under the Code of Conduct. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Public servants across the APS have been given the green light to campaign in a personal capacity for the yes and no camps in this year’s Voice to Parliament referendum, but the approval comes with a firm warning that any engagement on the referendum must not bring the service into disrepute.

The Australian Public Service Commission has issued referendum guidance for APS employees that goes to their obligations around talking about the referendum, volunteering for either side and using social media to engage with the topic.

The guidelines sanction personal involvement with the referendum debate so long as it is done in a way consistent with public servants’ obligations to maintain public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the APS.

“APS employees, like all Australian citizens, are entitled to express personal views on the merits of the various positions on the referendum question,” the guidance document states.

“APS employees have a lot to offer the public conversation as an informed and engaged cohort.

“In engaging publicly, you should ensure that your conduct is lawful, that it is clear you are expressing your own views, and that your engagement does not conflict with your public service role.”

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Things get a little trickier for public servants whose work has them directly involved in advising on or implementing the referendum.

“For such employees, public comment on the referendum in a personal capacity may be given greater weight – and cause greater concern – than similar comments made by employees with different duties, or by members of the public, because these employees may be perceived to have privileged access to knowledge and influence within government,” it states.

“This does not mean that if you are working on the referendum, you must not publicly engage with it at all in a personal capacity.

“But when considering whether to do so, it’s important to be mindful of how that engagement could reasonably be perceived by members of the community, and the impact it might have on their confidence in the APS as an impartial institution.”

There is an even stronger caution for those employed in the more senior ranks of the APS.

“Generally, the more senior your APS classification, the greater the risk your personal engagement in the referendum might affect public confidence in the APS.”

The direction goes on to suggest the community is more likely to believe that senior employees’ comments are based on specialised inside knowledge.

The opinions of senior leaders and authority figures are given more weight than those of more junior employees.

“The more senior an employee, the more difficult it can be to differentiate comments they make in a private capacity from those made on behalf of their agency or minister,” it says.

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For all APS employees, the direction is that whatever they do in a personal capacity, it cannot breach the high standards of the APS Code of Conduct.

“One of your obligations under the code of conduct is to behave at all times in a way that upholds the APS Values and Employment Principles, and the integrity and good reputation of your agency and the APS,” the guidelines state.

“This means that your behaviour outside work is subject to the code to the extent that it could reasonably be viewed as failing to uphold the integrity and good reputation of your agency or the APS, or it could reasonably call into question your capacity to comply with the Values and Employment Principles in your work, for example, your capacity to be impartial or respectful.

“It’s important to be aware that your personal engagement in the referendum could potentially breach the code of conduct.

“There are a range of risks and considerations you should think through carefully. The higher the risk that your behaviour could undermine trust in the APS, the more likely it is to be inconsistent with the code.”

Public servants have even been directed to let family and friends know that they are expressing personal views only when discussing the referendum.

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum is expected to be held sometime in the last quarter of this year.

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When a government suppresses senior internal legal advice or opinion that is authoritative, but contrary to its own ideological position on the implications of a Yes vote for the Voice, then APS employees should find ways to release or publicly expose that legal advice, in the public interest. It is better to find out what the Solicitor General is saying before rather than after the vote.

Its upto Albo to make the case.
Providing all the information. Lack of information or infomating hiding, one has to assume that its bad or contrary information.

We don’t need to see the info, if that info is purposely hidden.
There is no evidence that this proposal wont have unintended impacts and those impacts having being analysed properly.

The only reasonable assumption is to vote No.
Those voting Yes aren’t on a basis of logic or reasoning only the feel of it.
Those who base their relational on feeling wouldn’t actually listen to any reports anyway.

Trevor Willis2:57 pm 05 Apr 23

Just vote NO and scrap the flag

@Trevor Willis
I certainly won’t be taking advice on how to vote from someone with your “natural order ideology” when it comes to First Nations people.

That’s right Trev, vote NO and scrap the Aboriginal flag. It is as decisive a symbol as the Eureka flag or the Confederate flag in the US. The Australian flag is the unifying flag and the Union Jack is a reminder of our English heritage and that the offical language is English, not Chinese, Russian or Hindustani!

@Sam Oak
“It is as decisive a symbol …” I assume you meant ‘divisive’ – though as usual it’s hard to understand exactly what you do mean.

JS, correct, divisive is what I meant. Ironically, it’s a bit like the Constitution. Most people understand what it means when it refers to Australians as inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders while a small minority like to be pedantic and want it explicitly spelt out that this subset of the population have a democratic voice which they already had in the first place. Go figure..

@Sam Oak
Interesting that you feel the unifying aspect in Australia is a symbol of our last 200 years of history, yet the symbol of the 40,000 years of history before then is divisive. I guess that’s the natural order you are looking to preserve, right?

JS why stop there? Why not go back millions of years when all land on Earth was one continent?

@Sam Oak
Ummm … was there a flag to represent the single continent of millions of years ago?

Public servants have to act legally.
Racial discrimination act clearly says:

“It is unlawful for a person to do any act involving a distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of any human right or fundamental freedom in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Campaigning for the voice is illegal racial discrimination, how can public servents support it without falling foul of the public service code of conduct?

You’ve made these outlandish statements about the referendum being racially discriminatory before. And when challenged have not offered one justification for that perspective. So again, what’s your justification for your racial discrimination assertion?

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