The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is seeking to further tighten its social media policy to ban any online comment on politics or government policy of any kind by its staff, and require that staff not use, even in a private capacity, social media sites that might reflect poorly on the department.

A revised policy circulated to staff “for comment” represents an even more draconian limitation on private expression by PM&C staff than the previous iteration of the department’s policy. That policy, revealed by Samantha Maiden, caused consternation with its Stasi-like demand that staff inform on each other if they suspected a colleague of anonymously or pseudonymously making political comment. The proposed policy simply bans any comment at all, instructing staff not to:

“Make, like, share and/or retweet any statement/s or comment/s that may be interpreted as advocating or criticising Government policies or the policies of other political parties or groups.”

The draft policy explicitly contradicts advice from the Australian Public Service Commission, which recognises that “APS employees have the same right to freedom of expression as other members of the community” but instructs public servants, in commenting online, not to comment on behalf of the government or their agency, not act in a way “compromising the APS employee’s capacity to fulfil their duties in an unbiased manner. This applies particularly where comment is made about policies and programmes [sic] of the employee’s agency”, not engage in harsh or extreme criticism of the government or other politicians or the APS, or engage in gratuitous personal attacks or in compromising public confidence in the agency or the APS.

It also goes much further than the policy it revises, which reflected the APSC approach of recognising public servants’ right to political comment but restricting it to expressions that did not bring the APS into disrepute or raise questions about a public servants’ ability to do their job effectively.

However the draft policy goes further than banning any form of political expression and seeks to dictate what social media platforms staff might use in their private lives, demanding staff “ensure the social media site you’re using does not conflict with APS Values or departmental policies, and does not bring the Department’s reputation into disrepute”.

Exactly what this means isn’t clear: perhaps 4Chan might fit those vague criteria. But what about Reddit, where stolen celebrity nude photos were posted? Problem is, politicians use Reddit for AMAs (Ask Me Anything sessions). What about dating or hook-up sites? What about mainstream sites where people express a wide range of political views, often in extreme or even abusive terms? The implication would seem to be that PM&C Secretary Ian Watt would simply prefer his staff pretended the internet didn’t exist at all.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW