Australian law recognises that public servants are citizens and are entitled to be involved in political activities with only so few restrictions as are essential for the apolitical operation of the APS itself. The APSC has broad guidance here.
This advice says that “APS employees may participate in political activities as part of normal community affairs.” However, there are conflicts of interest to manage. Simply put, a clear line needs to divide your professional work from your personal politics. The main thing the APS is worried about is the reputation of APS itself and its perceived ability to faithfully serve a government of any persuasion. You are at your most free when you are engaging in policy matter that’s different to your work matter – for example, a Centrelink employee campaigning on Climate Change is very low risk, but that same Centrelink employee talking about Robodebt is very high risk. The inverse is true for a Climate Change Employee.
The Greens recommends that public servants follow some Dos and Don’ts:
- Participate in ordinary campaign activities such as doorknocking.
- Be reasonable in your critique of government policies.
- Mind your manners. Politeness avoids questions of professionality.
- Make sure your manager is aware of what you’re doing on the campaign trail. This helps avoid surprises and reinforces your personal integrity.
- Bring up your status as an APS employee when talking to the community if you can avoid it. If you must, also make it clear that you’re not there in an official capacity.
- Bring up issues that are directly relevant to your work area. If they do come up, try and focus on the issue’s significance rather than any government response to it, and only reveal information that is already in the public domain.
- Fly off the handle about any given issue. People should remember the subject matter of the conversation (Vote Green) more than whom they had it with.
Most often, a manager’s concerns about an APS employee’s engagement in politics will be borne out of ignorance rather than confidence, and an inclination to say ‘No’ by default rather than to be flexible.
If you find yourself in a difficult conversation with your work manager about your campaign activities, remember that you are entitled to Union representation in most employment agreements.
We recommend joining the Community and Public Sector Union.