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Silencing Public Servants

Di Martin and Background Briefing on a recent case going directly to the area of control over an employees private life. What can be restricted by your terms of employment or Codes of Conduct.

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The Department of Human Services sacked a public servant for comments posted online that they said  breach the public service Code of Conduct, either by criticising government or making derogatory comments about managers. And late last year it dismissed the man who wrote these and a handful of other posts, 40-year-old Centrelink worker Daniel Starr.

The Department says it doesn’t matter that they were anonymous or that they were posted in Daniel Starr’s spare time, because public servants are bound by the Code and other internal guidelines at all times.

Two million Australian public sector workers live with these kinds of restrictions on their private lives.

Daniel Starr’s fate has become a test case for government departments around Australia who want to control what their workers say online.

It’s a test case not because Daniel Starr was sacked, but because in the end the Fair Work Commission ruled that Daniel Starr must be reinstated.

The Commission agreed there were some objectionable posts, one of them where Daniel Starr calls clients ‘spastics’ and ‘junkies’. But the ruling said there were mitigating factors, and being sacked was just too harsh a penalty.

It also roundly criticised the Department’s interpretation of the Code of Conduct, comparing it to a gross intrusion on the private lives of public servants. The Department is appealing.

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