The federal government does not own the bodies, souls or speech of its public servants, the head of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission says in response to the "extraordinary" social media rules imposed by one department.
Commission president Gillian Triggs said Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet staff had a right to private lives and their own views, despite new social media guidelines on the use of Twitter, Facebook and other websites. The new policy encouraged staff to dob in colleagues who criticise the government.
Dr Triggs' comments on Wednesday came after the Community and Public Sector Union lodged an industrial dispute under Fair Work laws with the department, saying the new rules were nasty and divisive.
Dr Triggs described the policy as "extraordinary".
"The public servant has a private life and a right to their own views,'' Dr Triggs said. "They are not owned totally body, soul and speech by the government."
But she said she would not have a battle with one of her commissioners, Tim Wilson, who expressed different views as the debate raged on Wednesday.
"He thinks it's reasonable that if you take the job then you have to accept that you have no private opinions and no right to speak," Dr Triggs said. "He accepts that. I don't. We won't have a battle over it."
Mr Wilson, a free speech campaigner, said on Wednesday that limited protocols around public servants making comments in public forums were appropriate.
In an opinion article published in Fairfax Media, Mr Wilson defended the place of similar codes of conduct, saying they played a crucial role in "civilising and normalising behaviour".
"Protocols that stop public comment, including but not limited to social media, by public servants should be limited to the specific area a public servant works in, and that is justified in light of their access to privileged information and the perception they could be speaking on behalf of the government," he said.
The department refused to comment on Wednesday.
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The CPSU alleged the department's failure to consult staff and unions over the changes was a clear breach of its enterprise agreement.
"Encouraging people to dob in a workmate is a new and nasty feature, and one that we think is entirely unnecessary," CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said. "Forcing people to spy on their colleagues is incredibly divisive and will only sow the seeds of mistrust in the workforce."
The union acknowledged the policy was based largely on 2012 Public Service Commission guidelines, but said the ''dob in a mate'' clause was not in an earlier draft of the rules that was to shown to the union.
"We have had many members contact us to express their anger and frustration at what can only be described as a draconian policy," Ms Flood said.