Free speech and public service

A minor controversy has broken out in Australia over restrictions on the free speech of public servants. The controversy was prompted by the Australian Public Service Commission issuing revised guidelines on the use of social media by public servants. The guidelines state that “criticising the work, or the administration, of your agency is almost always going to be seen as a breach of the Code,” and so such criticisms invite dismissal.

The Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, who I worked beside many years ago when he ran public sector industrial relations  under the hard free market driven Kennett Government (1992-99),  made the already provocative guidelines worse by commenting that public servants may, subject to the discretion and judgement of their employer, be “in trouble” if they liked a facebook post of a family member on the issue of gay marriage. The current Government has a policy on gay marriage, which even some of its own parliamentary members criticise; but if a public servant were, however faintly, to express a differing view, then according to Mr Lloyd’s code of convenience, they would be imperilling the reputation and capacity of the public service to serve the government of the day impartially and professionally. They could be dismissed for a simple social impulse that takes one second to do and in no way affects anything they do at work.

These guidelines are deeply wrong. They breach the right to free speech of public servants, and breach other rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Let’s look at some of the articles of the covenant.

Article 17

1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence [my emphasis], nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The APSC social media guidelines expose people’s private correspondence on social media to the discretionary judgement of an agency, who may decide certain comments hurt the agency’s reputation. The consequence is to attack a public servant’s ability to perform their job professionally and hence their reputation.  Is the idea of the executive management of public sector agencies patrolling the social media posts any better than Stalin monitoring the correspondence of the dissident poets of the Soviet Union? Must we be like Akhmatova and burn our opinions after speaking them to another so that no evidence is left behind?

Article 18

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought [my emphasis], conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

If I manifest my beliefs in a vocation of public service on this blog, and I criticise the leadership of the public service for failing to live up to those ethical beliefs, the ordinary virtues of governing well, that I espouse, then, according to Mr Lloyd, I should be sacked. In threatening such action, the new guidelines restrict my freedom of thought (and this right applies to thought and conscience, not only religion) and restricts my ability to manifest that belief.

There are two common defences of such restrictions – that it is necessary to protect the reputation of the public service as impartial and professional, and that is a right that I waive by signing an employment contract. The second of these defences may go to an interpretation of the rights and freedoms of others, ie of employers, as shown in several industrial cases. However, I think properly understood what is being defended here are the current interests of these others, not their fundamental rights and freedoms.

The primary defence of the restriction relates to the protection of public order, in the language of the covenant. How can public order be maintained if the servants of the government of the day can criticise Ministers and agencies willy-nilly, and lead the public to believe that government acts without a single voice, without a common body of authority? There is clearly a threshold issue here. No-one has the right to falsely scream fire in a cinema. However, none of the illustrative examples of breaches of social media use have the gravity of imperilling public order. They tend rather to expose senior managers who are hypersensitive to criticism, and unable to project legitimate authority.

Article 19

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

You do not have the right to hold opinions without interference if you are threatened with dismissal for shaping your thoughts on a blog that may be followed, such as this one, by less than fifty people. You do not have the freedom to choose the media of your choice if you are told you can say some things in private, but not by liking facebook posts.

As with article 18 there is a balance of right and responsibility in article 19. But Mr Lloyd’s dictats restrict many more acts of free speech than the relatively few that genuinely breach the rights and reputations of others. Criticism after all is neither sedition nor defamation.

These social media guidelines are not especially the work of one side of politics or another. They are part of a general regime of control and impoverishment of public debate by managerial elites. They reflect a general practice that ushers public servants, who often are well informed and capable of meaningful contribution to public dialogue, into a dark, silent corner, while inept political advisers and communications consultants dominate the airwaves with inane talking points.

I believe these guidelines, moreover, are a form of intimidation of critics by a managerial elite who are incapable of conducting respectful dialogue with the employees of their own institution. I am considering making a complaint on the matter to the Australian Human Rights Commission – but think that my energies are better spent looking at ways of sheltering, protecting and renewing the genuine ethos of public service that I espouse.

The irony, of course, is that this managerial elite has done far more damage to the reputation of the public service and its capacity to serve both the government of the day and the broader public with impartiality, professional ethos and pride in the ordinary virtues of governing well. I look around my own institution and see dozens of senior executives who have made their way their through patronage, partisan service in political adviser roles or mercenary service in management consulting.

Indeed, Mr Lloyd himself does not have a distinguished career of serving both sides of politics. He has migrated from one conservative government to another, and long been a member of the right wing industrial relations club at the Institute of Public Affairs. His appointment as Public Service Commissioner, in my opinion, dishonoured the service.

There are, indeed, much greater threats to the reputation, impartiality and professional ethos of the public service than the occasional impulsive social media post. We would do better acting on them, than persecuting people for opinions. Recently, a distinguished Commonwealth public servant, Dennis Richardson, called for a Royal Commission into the institution. He was quoted as saying:

“I sometimes wonder whether the time has not come for a second Coombs commission, in terms of the public sector. We had a royal commission into the public service in the 1970s and I think every so often institutions need to go back to their philosophical foundations. And I sometimes wonder whether the time has not come for a second royal commission, because community attitudes and standards have changed; the way in which ministers, ministerial advisers and public servants work together has completely changed; and I wonder whether we should not be revisiting the philosophical foundations of that.”

I agree with this call. I would also support such a Commission or Inquiry into the public service of the Victorian Government, which is very much rotting from the head down, led by a man who espouses a mercenary belief in something called the “public purpose sector.” Such a Commission or Inquiry should be able to look at the broader foundations of democratic institutions – parliament, parties, public serving universities, and public dialogue across many media.

Such a Commission or Inquiry would better preserve and improve the reputation and integrity of the public service than these contemptible guidelines on social media use.

Republics in distress

As I look around the world at the state of politics, I conclude that our democratic republics are in distress.

This judgment is not a mere oppositional response to Donald Trump or Brexit or any form of disappointment that my preferred leader or team has lost the electoral lottery. It is a more deeply and long held view about decay of our political, governing and public institutions. It is a view I have gestured towards occasionally on The Burning Archive, but never fully articulated. The full argument is the work of a long essay or a short book, but let me at least stammer out some brief fragments here this morning.

1. Politics has turned into a spiteful shouting match, little more than highly conventionalised panel shows.

2. Our political leaders chant mantras of grandiose reform, overwhelmingly about the economy – not humanly measured care for our fellow humans. They have abandoned the true grounds of democratic politics – practical morality, concerned for our neighbours and strangers alike – to preen themselves before the merchant masters of the universe.

3. Governments have lost authority. People mistake this for the public losing trust in politics. But trust is the basis of personal transactions. Authority is the basis of politics. Authority is earned by rightful action, and while it may be claimed by the governing, it can only be bestowed by the governed. Our republics have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

4. Political elites have become parasites on government. They no longer direct the institutions of the republic towards commonly agreed goals, but use those institutions to market themselves to their followers. Elites is too kind a word to describe the camp of followers who seek to make their careers through the exploitation of the resources of government in this way.

5. Political parties have become husks of their former role of mobilising ideas and networks towards a purpose. They have become empty marketing machines which are only viable through commandeering the patronage and marketing resources of government.

6. Governments in these conditions fail to deliver the basic, of ever evolving, services and infrastructure people want. This is Fukuyama’s judgment too. It is for this reason – not social media or fickle people – that public trust is so low. It is a function of poor performance.

7. Political patronage networks and marketing/managerial ideas have cannibalised public institutions, which were once among the independent platoons of democratic society. These institutions, including the public service bureaucracy, professional services and universities, have become spritless shells of their former selves.

8. Public debate has plummeted with the dominance of professionalised party machines, marketing and spectator media. Sources of better public debate – the public institutions – have been sidelined in favour of celebrity, spin doctors and automaton politicians with talking points.

These are gloomy points on a gloomy winter’s morning, and may be refashioned over time.

But how should one respond to the republics in distress? That is a great conceptual and ethical dilemma. To respond with populist sentiment – power to the people? – would be naively heroic. To respond with partisan sentiment – party X is the best, most responsible, most progressive of the credible alternatives – would be heroically naive. To respond with serene optimism – we have faced crises before and we will find a way through this one too – would be Panglossian and stupid.

I am drawn rather to images of endurance, withdrawal and renewal. Our civic problems of governing have escaped our control. We cannot stop the disintegration of our political institutions, and all the adverse consequences of our broken tools of governance, the cascades of spite and failure we see each night on the news; no more than we cannot stop climate change, economic inequality, cultural fragmentation, the unravelling of empires and geo-strategic conflict.

We are entering a new Dark Ages, and the history of those times may provide a lamp to guide us on our long walk to a better life. In the monasteries and margins of the Dark Ages, new ways of living in truth took hold. We should look today to the actions within our control that can serve as the wellsprings for new ways of living. This blog, this practice of writing despite the destructive flames that threaten the culture I hold dear, is one such practice. So too is the care of my family, and the practice of the ordinary virtues (dignity, compassion, humility, respect for human frailty) at work. In acceptance and commitment therapy, I also see a path. There, you deal with life’s adversities my taking committed action that approaches your values. So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.

The antidote to our republics in distress is the commitment by each of us to living in the truth, and an ethical stance of dissidence, in which our spaces of freedom, such as these blogs as a new samizdat, become sanctuaries from the flames for at least one seedling of a virtuous life.

As Vaclav Havel wrote and as I have drawn on his inspiration before

“I favour… Politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favour politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative. (From “Politics and conscience”) “

Poem: The state of politics

Poem: The state of politics

Poetry and politics make for strained companions. The politics of poets is unreliable, inclined to the spree of metaphors that makes the overly confident practitioners of practical judgement uneasy in their thrones. The imaginative thought of politicians can be banal and conceited, if not downright oxymoronic.

Oil and water, maybe? Still I have one foot in both camps, which makes for an interesting life. But both sides of my world – both the part that writes and the part that governs – reels back in revulsion at the state of politics today in modern liberal democracies.

In the course of writing the Burning Archive, I have from time to time, put in prose the disappointment and despair I feel from time to time about our republics in distress. In my series 13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat explored many dimensions of this troubled familiarity with how we are governed – beginning here, in the seed of an idea on perspectives planted by Wallace Stevens’ poem, and ending here, in contemplation of the long waits of winter that I must endure until the season of our politics turns again to some ordinary virtues of governing well. I have written of citizenship as a spiritual experience, of democracy’s discontents, the unravelling of empires, and predicted both Donald Trump’s victory and his failure. Politics is for me an ongoing concern, however much I am distancing myself from it in more recent years,

But today, let me share a poem I have written on the state of politics. It was written against the background of serial leadership challenges in the Australian state, a self-destructive debate on a carbon tax, and a creeping loss of faith that we still have the habits and institutions to resolve our differences and so make a civil life together. Instead we are infected with a culture of gotcha journalism and spiteful twitter smart alecs. Amidst this ruin, the ghost of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito rises, and provides his own report from a corrupted city.

The state of politics

Dr Cogito is reborn

Amidst our gadgets,

Displaying pixelated ruin

For ceaseless fireside chats.

 

On a panel two figures say:

Disunity is death is inevitable

Is the pragmatic choice

Because we know

There is no alternative.

 

Dr Cogito jumps to the mike

But the queued questioners

repudiate reason

putting passion first

To complain of taxing the elements.

 

Every questioner must twit the panel

To try 144 characters of fame

To display their chosen name

To win the acid-tongued mobs

 

On the panel two figures say:

We hate our shrunken state

If only clear air would set us free

From all this aimless hate.

 

Dr Cogito taps his tablet – but too slow

The dark grieving for Lycidas begins.

Unforgiven. Blue bloody murder

Patrols these dark Scottish halls.

 

Dr Cogito hears Das Rheingolds opening note,

And so the story goes:

We still dig from deep water’s mud:

The ring, the ring, the ring.

 

Jeff Rich

Image Source: Seattle Opera staging of Wagner’ Das Rheingold, photograph Rozarii Lynch

 

Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

The following poem is from my Burning Archive collection.

It had its origins in a strategic leadership program I attended some years ago at the Australian and New Zealand School of Government. We, the participants, sat in a large circle of maybe 30, and were invited by the facilitator to declare something about ourselves, some thing we aspired to do, but had not. It was an exercise in getting out of our comfort zone, and into the kind of psychodynamic group space beloved by the Tavistock Institute.

There were some dull confessions and rote ambitions, and then it came to my turn.  I said, “I had always wanted to be a poet, but never had fully given myself over to it.” I was teetering on the verge of the perpetual crisis of my career – a dichter  lost in the maze of power. I heeded the call of the strange gods that I serve, and set out on my unique path.

Later in the leadership program, we were asked to develop a policy response to the immigration and refugee problem in Australia. We were shipped around Melbourne to meet various stakeholders, including one remarkable community leader of the Afghani refugee community in Melbourne. Nouriel was her name – I have forgotten her surname over the years.

When we presented our proposals to the group we were invited to be as imaginative as possible. I closed out our presentation, with an improvised story about Nouriel’s shoes, the gifts she gave to her home country in the hope that women would be educated, and her society would find peace and no longer need to be a source country for refugees.

Here is the poem.

Nouriel’s Shoes

 

Nouriel does not know time wasting.

She does not know carelessness.

Asylum seekers – she cannot forgive them,

For buying their way to freedom,

For walking past crying millions in the camps.

And the lawyers, who parade

Their bookish rights, like flash cars,

She despises.

 

She fled Kabul in ’79,

An educated woman in a liberal society

that just did not take.

Paris schooled her for a time –

Just like Khomeini, another exile –

Before the Great Southern Land

Gave her freedom,

But not a home.

 

She remembers Kabul:

Its ordered streets and fruit-trees,

The women laughing in the sunshine,

The children dressed in fine cottons,

Playing in the gardens.

Then, the tanks, the shells, the war, the hatred

That brought Afghanis to this kitchen,

At the other end of the world.

 

Here she returned the gift:

Making scarred men into kitchen hands;

Running English classes for the women;

Outwitting the men who would wrap

Their women in silent ignorance

To cocoon their cards and drink and faith;

Nouriel’s freedom must be worked for.

To those many who do, she gives all that she can.

 

Now she returns to Kabul,

after the Taliban

Have fled her city for now.

In abandoned parks, children play bare-footed

Between rubble and shells.

Schools barely hold their girls against poisoned faiths.

To these schools she decides to give;

So no more Afghanis will flee to her wealthy refuge,

But stay in her remembered home.

 

She buys the children shoes,

Hundreds of boxes of shoes.

One summer she visits a school with her gifts.

Watching as the children begin their long walk home,

She sees one girl carrying her box,

Still bare-footed, in the hard dust of the street.

Nouriel asks: “Why don’t you put them on?”

The girl replies: “I must wash my feet first.”

 

Jeff Rich

 

Image source: Getty images

The infinite conversation and survival

The infinite conversation and survival

I have written before in the Burning Archive of the metaphor for writing, and its eternal companion, reading, that I have prised from the title of Blanchot’s work, The Infinite Conversation

I have written here of how writing secures our rare and precious fragments of understanding against loss and destruction, and bequeathed them in their frail forms to those who wish to take part in the infinite conversation.

And I have written here, in more cryptic and plangent terms of how for me writing is my chosen method of going sane and staying sane. To chant the songlines of human heritage, regardless of audience and social esteem, is my path. As I wrote in 2015, surprising myself with this record of my thoughts preserved from the flames:

“it is only the lonely tenacity of single sane souls that invests in the harmless runes of prophecy. But from those chance meanings, spread like disorder across time and space, will emerge the infinite conversation.”

The infinite conversation emerged as a guiding metaphor from a dialogue with my psychotherapist. She posed the question what values are important to you when you write. For me fame is not the spur, nor wealth, nor even impossible immortality. But a kind of survival through braiding my gentle voice with the threads without end of literature.

I do not have ready access to Blanchot’s text to deepen my imagination of the meaning of a mere title to his work. The best I could do was to find the text of a brief tribute by Jean-Luc Nancy on the occasion of Blanchot’s still living centenary. 

This existence is not life as immediate affection and self-perpetuation, nor is it its death. The ‘dying’ [‘mourir’] of which Blanchot speaks—which is in no way to be confused with the cessation of life, and which is, quite on the contrary, the living, or ‘living-on’, or ‘sur-viving’ invoked by Derrida when he was at his closest to Blanchot -forms the movement of the ceaseless approach to absenting as true sense, destroying in it all trace of nihilism.

Such is the movement that, being written, can ‘give to nothing, in its form of nothing, the form of something.

It is this form of survival that I cherish in writing. This survival of ghostly incantations and keener sounds comes from the borderlands of the mind, and a solitary wanderer’s habit of paying loving attention to the voices in his head. This survival promises renewal from isolation. It promises dream from the injuries of the day. And it makes from our evanescent words fragments of beauty that may wander the earth forever.

An accidental tourist

Here is a poem of mine from about a year ago.

When the wind blows from I know not where
And stained visions crowd my troubled sleep
I wake late, mistaken and stripped bare
Only to stumble on the rock where I am told to leap

Leap into words infinite and sentences dread
Into the equations of the unreal and forbidden
Into these whispers that press past me like strangers
In a city, where even the streets are made of ether

And where I land and if and why
Are not mine to know

I land in some foreign place
Unimagined and unplanned
An accidental tourist chained in chance again.

 

Jeff Rich