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In The Proposition, Crikey gives commentators and readers a provocative statement which bounces off a hot topic. Today, the proposition is:

Public servants should never express their personal or political views in public.

I broadly agree but only if:

  1. There’s a good chance their view could be politically contentious; AND
  2. They’re subordinate to politicians (and not independent officers like chief medical officers or Productivity Commission commissioners)

However public servants of all stripes should speak publicly far more on public blogs about their work, what they’re learning and what they’d like to understand better as we suggested in the 2009 Government 2.0 Taskforce and as researchers at the Bank of England do today.

— Nicholas Gruen, former adviser to the federal government; Lateral Economics chief executive officer

Australia no longer has an apolitical public service culture and governments should not be expected to take professional advice (or be required to defend any rejection of it) without knowledge of the personal values and consequent conflicts of interest behind it.

Public servants are human. They can secretly oppose and undermine government attempts at reform because they disagree. While most do not, transparency makes sabotage harder. Public servants publicly sharing their political values will not stop their opposition to various reform agendas; but will make it easier for governments and the public to understand and to manage, necessarily with protections in place.

— Pru Goward, former NSW government minister, former Australian sex discrimination commissioner, and broadcaster

The penalties that exist could utterly chill open debate and when, inevitably, our pollies let us down, not being able to understand how a decision was made will further erode trust and heighten the impression that policy is rigged to serve mates. “Experts” aren’t limited to the ones they allow us to hear from.

Cameron Foster, Crikey reader

Considerable restraint is appropriate — sensibly, when retribution can be swift and brutal without protection of whistleblowers. More importantly perhaps, former public servants are not bound to silence — on the contrary, they probably have an obligation to speak up and out in their areas of expertise to balance the debates. I do — some 20 years following retirement. 

Sadly, some former public servants, having acquiesced inappropriately on-the-job — not even murmuring — remain spiritually compromised, bound to hold their peace forever.

— Peter Mair, Crikey reader and former public servant

Public servants have personal and political views. They have background knowledge that informs those views.

If public servants can’t speak for themselves, no one will know the background or express the views they have. We all need to know their views for the same reasons we need to know other people’s views. Without them, we have a picture of the world that leaves important things out of view — and so prevents proper debate.

The reason the rules limit what public servants can say is to prevent them from appearing to speak in the government’s name, and to prevent them from appearing to be unfit to implement the government’s decisions. Neither requirement should be applied any further than those principles justify.

— Christopher Hood, Crikey reader

Our next proposition is: If the coronavirus crisis results in at least one major permanent change to the way we live our lives, or conduct our society, what would that change be? Let us know your thoughts by writing a response of no more than 80 words to [email protected].

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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