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New public service social media policy is 'overreach': union boss Nadine Flood

Public servants could breach tough new social media rules if they criticise the government by "liking" posts on Facebook or Twitter or by sharing negative information or comments in private emails.

The public sector union and Labor have called a new social media guidance released by the Australian Public Service Commission on Monday "overreach", warning government employees should be allowed to participate in normal democratic debate.

The Greens said the move was like something from US President Donald Trump's playbook, saying they'd seek to block any changes. 

The new rules warn public servants don't have unlimited rights of free speech, including warning against breaches of the Public Service Code of Conduct through criticising departments, the government and opposition or through expressing negative views on government policies.

Liking, reposting and sharing social media content or even selecting Facebook's "angry face" icon could breach employment conditions, while not taking sensible action about objectionable material posted by someone else could be seen as endorsement.

The rules ban anonymous posts criticising the government, including using a pseudonym, reminding public servants they can be traced through their digital footprint or via a "dob-in" to their department.

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They call for nuanced and thoughtful language, instead of blunt or inflammatory comments. Criticism of any person, including current or former colleagues, could breach rules requiring respect and courtesy and could be seen as harassment.

Public servants also face disciplinary action over content sent in private emails.

"There's nothing to stop your friend taking a screenshot of that email, including your personal details, and sending it to other people or posting it all over the internet," the guidance says.

"In fact, there's nothing to stop your friend from forwarding your email directly to your employer and reporting your behaviour."

Public servants are required to follow official channels to raise concerns about department or government activity, and have been told criticism of other departments could hurt their future job applications.

Public servants posting on social media after work hours is no different, and posting from privately-owned devices is still against the rules.

"Criticising your Minister, or the Prime Minister, is just as risky as criticising your agency," the guidance says.

"Equally, criticising your shadow Minister, the leader of the Opposition, or the relevant spokesperson from minor parties, is also likely to raise concerns about your impartiality and to undermine the integrity and reputation of your agency and the APS generally.

"The speed and reach of online communication means that material posted online is available immediately to a wide audience. It can be difficult to delete and may be replicated endlessly. It may be sent to, or seen by, people the author never intended or expected would see it."

Public servants are reminded to include a disclaimer on their social media profiles to distance their views from their employer, but these moves might not prevent a breach of their employment if they publish "material that is vehemently anti-government".

Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood said the new rules don't strike the right balance between protecting the impartiality of the public service and allowing everyday participation in democratic debate.

"Commonwealth public sector staff work hard to serve the Australian community, but they are also citizens," she said.

"Government acts in every area of life and that's why the situation isn't the same as what it would be for someone working in the private sector. This policy is at the extreme end even on that scale."

Ms Flood said it was unreasonable for a worker to face disciplinary action over a private email or 'liking' a social media post.

"There's a certain irony that John Lloyd, who has been highly political in his time as APS Commissioner, won't even let the rest of the 155,000 people working in the public sector 'like' something on Facebook if he doesn't like it," she said.

Greens employment spokesperson Adam Bandt MP likened the guidance to something from the Trump White House. 

"If anyone challenges Trump, they get fired. Malcolm Turnbull, in his desperation to hang onto power, is trying to do the same," he said. 

"Holding public servants responsible for what others post on their page is the stuff of the thought police. Your job shouldn't be in danger because someone shares a post on your page about marriage equality or action on climate change and you don't delete it.

"The Greens will be requesting more information on the implementation of this policy and will explore ways to ensure it is never enacted."

Fenner MP Andrew Leigh said Treasurer Scott Morrison would fail the test, after his Twitter account liked a July tweet calling for better resourcing of the Tax Office. 

"These rules don't pass the virtual pub test. It's absurd to think that a public servant could face formal disciplinary action just because they click 'like' on Facebook or Twitter," Dr Leigh said. 

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