Freedom of Speech in the Public Service

Question: Who should the Public Service serve?
Answer: The public, Parliament, Government, and the bureaucrats; in that order of priority.
Australians have freedom of speech - unless they happen to be in the Police Force, or the Armed Forces, or the Public Service, or they happen to be high-profile sportsmen, or...

This site primarily concerns failings in the South Australian democracy.
Written early 2002, last modified 2018/11/05
Feedback welcome, email


It would be possible to improve the Public Service by upholding public servants' basic human right to freedom of speech and expression, including the right to criticize the Public Service.

Public servants, like all other citizens of democracies, have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and the right to full participation in all the processes of democracy.

Improvements in value for taxpayers' money would be achieved by allowing, or even requiring, public servants to speak according to their consciences and to criticize whatever they believe is wrong within the Public Service.

At present a public servant risks disciplinary action for speaking conscientiously.

On this page:
Freedom of speech | Critisism of the Public Service | Centralization | Decentralization | Contact me
Two quotes that are a pleasure to read...
Definitive extract from Encyclopaedia | The Four Freedoms speech by Robert Menzies

A relevant external link: Whistleblowers Australia

Who should the Public Service serve?

Public servants' primary responsibility is to serve the public. If there is any conflict between management or Government on one side, and the public on the other, then the good of the public must be first. Yet bureaucrats seem to believe that the first responsibility of public servants should be toward the Public Service.
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Five parties are involved

  1. The public,
  2. Parliament,
  3. Government,
  4. Bureaucrats (Public Service management),
  5. Public servants (Public Service rank and file).
Ideally all work together. In many cases one or several parties are pulling in a different direction to the others. Lack of open criticism of the public service from within gives the bureaucrats, in particular, more power. It gives the public, parliament, and public servants less power.

The democratic right to freedom of speech

The right to freedom of speech and expression is supported under both the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, as determined by the High Court of Australia, the Australian Constitution.

In December 2003 the Federal Court ruled that a Customs Officer who was diciplined after he spoke publicly about drug traficking had a constitutional right to freedom of speech. See the Bennett case in the records of the Federal Court of Australia. This was reported by Terry Lane on the ABC on Sunday 22 February 2004.

A quote from the Victorian Parliament Web site.

"The High Court has, in the last decade, handed down a number of important decisions which have implied certain fundamental rights from the text of the Australian Constitution. The most widely accepted right has been the right to freedom of speech."
Democracy cannot function fully and properly without freedom of speech, yet some bureaucrats hold that public servants do not have the right to freedom of speech! They try to disallow public servants from freely expressing a personal opinion in their area of expertise. Also, there is a clause in the SA Public Service act (probably unconstitutional) that says that public servants are not allowed to publicly criticize the Public Service.
More | Extract from Encyclopaedia | The Four Freedoms: speech by Robert Menzies. | Top

Distinction between individual and position

A distinction must be made between the individual (who, in a democracy, always has the inalienable right of freedom of speech) and the position in which he/she serves.
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An employee of the Public Service may not criticize the Public Service

At present the Public Service Act states that employees are not permitted to critisize the Public Service. This is a recipe for inefficiency and for the proliferation of cover-ups.

If a junior public servant sees inefficiencies, but his supervisors do not wish to remove the inefficiencies (perhaps it may not be in their interests to remove the inefficiencies), then there is little that the junior public servant can do. To try to go further up the chain of command is rarely effective; there is a culture of keeping people in their places.

If those inefficiencies could be made public they would have to be fixed.

The small section immediately below concerns a failing of the SA Public Service that has only a limited connection with the suppression of freedom of speech and the illegality of criticism of the Public Service from within.

Centralization: The capital city grows at the expense of the country

It suits the bureaucrats to have their operation in one place - the capital city. The responsibilities of a number of government departments are mainly in country districts, yet the great majority of these departments' staff are based in the city.

The good of the state would be better served by greater decentralization. At present country kids have to go to the city to get jobs; while many public servants are employed in the city to work on projects in the country.
Decentralization | Top

In the section below I have discussed at greater length some of the issues outlined above.

Who should public servants serve?

Public servants' salary is not paid by the bureaucrats, it is not paid by Government, it is paid by the taxpayers.

Government governs by right of a fiat from the people; it has a responsibility to serve the people. Bureaucrats should serve Government and the public. Public servants' first responsibility is toward the public.

A Public Service that primarily serves the bureaucracy would be an entirely inward-looking, self-serving organization. Even to serve the government before the public would be a corruption and must be opposed consistently and strongly.

(This is not a call for anarchy. I'm not saying that every public servant should ignore the instructions of his/her supervisor, and say and do as he/she thinks fit, but where there is a conflict of interest between the five parties, the good of the people must come first.)

It is to the short-term advantage of a government to have the Public Service doing its bidding and giving the public second place. Giving public servants the right to speak-out about this type of corruption would be a step toward controlling this tendency.

The present highly entrenched system is limiting the value of this State's Public Service. It is inefficient, is keeping the public from being as well informed as it might be, and certainly denies the basic right of freedom of speech to many people. It serves the bureaucrats and to a lesser extent, Government; it is a disservice to democracy, the public and Parliament.
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Freedom of speech for public servants

A specialist public servant is often, because of his/her position, able to see potential hazards, opportunities, or outcomes that the public should be made aware of. At present he is not allowed to inform the public of these things if it doesn't suit the bureaucrats.

A public servant is not owned by the bureaucrats, he is not a slave; he is employed for a given number of hours each week and outside those hours he is a free man.

Will chaos result? An objection to full freedom of speech is the argument that to have public servants speaking out on all and any subject that they like will 'undermine the integrity' of the Public Service and confuse the public.

This is a paternalistic argument that I would like to counter in several ways:

  • Few public servants will speak out. Most will have no subject that they would want to raise. Many who do feel that they have a subject that should be raised will keep quiet because that is the easiest thing to do; many others will keep quiet because they believe to do otherwise would be to jeopardize their chances of promotion or of their contract being renewed.
  • Supposing there was freedom of speech, when a public servant expresses a point of view with which his/her department does not agree, then what is to stop the department asking some other specialist to put the opposing point of view? Isn't this what should happen in a democracy?
  • The majority of the public are not fools; they are quite capable of deciding the facts for themselves, if well informed.
Contrary to confusing the public, I believe that giving public servants unlimited freedom of speech will result in a much more open and full debate of some contentious issues, a more democratic nation, and, in the end, a better informed public.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire
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Distinction between individual and position

The individual should always have the right to speak according to his conscience. If, when he does so, some people wrongly assume that he is speaking on behalf of the Government Department that employs him, that is not his fault, and it should not be used as an excuse to gag him.

I believe that any public servant has the moral right and responsibility to behave according to his conscience. If his position and expertise allow him to see risks or opportunities that he believes the public have a right to be made aware of, then he should do what he can to make them known; and he should not be censured or disadvantaged in any way for doing so.
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Open criticism of the bureaucracy, with the resultant reduction in the power of the bureaucrats, could result in a degree of decentralization with resultant rural revival.

Excessive centralization, I believe, is one of the major faults of the Public Service.

Bureaucrats are notorious empire builders. They like to have their people under their direct control. No city bureaucrat would, by choice, have his staff spread around the state; he'd rather they were all in the city.

Much work handled by government departments mainly concerns country districts; for example, projects concerning desalination of the Murray River, mining, land clearing regulation, Aboriginal affairs, protection of native fauna, control of feral animals, fishing, aquiculture, groundwater resources and regulation of the irrigation industry. Yet the majority of public servants employed in these matters are city based.

Country people have long had to accept that when their children reach working age they will probably have to go to the city to find employment. How many of these young people get jobs in the city, have to secure (relatively expensive) housing in the city, and then find themselves frequently travelling out to the country to do their work?

It is inefficient to have people stationed in the city and working on country projects. Why not have people studying, say, ways to decrease the salinity of the Murray, based in the area? Not only would they be living closer to their work, but by socializing with the local people they would get a better feel for local concerns. It would also have the advantage of making the public servants less remote from the public; they would be more accessible; it would reduce the counterproductive 'them and us' mentality - from both sides.

Especially when so many public servants are employed on short-term contracts, why can't they be employed where their work is?
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An extract from World Book Encyclopaedia on CD ROM, 'Millennium 2000'

Freedom of speech is the right to speak out publicly or privately. The term covers all forms of expression, including books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and films. Many scholars consider freedom of speech a natural right.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), a British philosopher, argued that freedom of speech is desirable because it enables people to add to their knowledge. Mill said that all statements may be true, partly true, or false. A person should be able to express an opinion that is contrary to what most people believe. If a person expresses a false belief, the true belief will gain in strength by being challenged and proved right. It is also desirable that a person should be able to express an opinion that is partly false and partly true. In disentangling what is true from what is false, people learn and correct their mistakes.

Freedom of speech is a safeguard against unjust rule. People should be free to criticize the laws of their community and the policies of their government. A government is less likely to impose unjust laws on people who can openly criticize its decisions. Without freedom of speech, people cannot have complete political freedom.

In a democracy, freedom of speech is a necessity. Democratic constitutions guarantee people the right to express their opinions freely because democracy is government of, by, and for the people. The people need information to help them determine the best political and social policies. Democratic governments need to know what most people--and various minorities--believe and want.

Most non-democratic countries deny freedom of speech to their people. Such governments believe that freedom of speech would interfere with the conduct of public affairs and would create disorder.

Limitations. People who enjoy the rights of free speech must respect other people's rights. A person's freedom is limited by the rights of others--for example their right to maintain their good reputation and their right to privacy. All societies, including democratic ones, put various limitations on what people may say. They prohibit certain types of speech that they believe might harm the government or the people. But defining such speech can be extremely difficult.

Most democratic countries have four major restrictions on free expression: (1) Laws covering libel and slander prohibit speech or publication that harms a person's reputation (see LIBEL; SLANDER). (2) Some laws forbid speech that offends public decency by using obscenities or by encouraging people to commit acts considered immoral. (3) Laws against spying, treason, and urging violence prohibit speech that endangers life, property, or national security. (4) Other laws forbid speech that invades the right of people not to listen to it. For example, a local by-law might limit the times when people may use loudspeakers in the streets.

The development of freedom of speech in most Western countries has been brought about through the growth of democratic governments based on the rule of law. In other countries, this freedom has grown more slowly or not at all.

Some countries, including the United Kingdom and France, have restrictions on freedom of information and free expression in the interests of national security. Such smaller countries as Denmark and Switzerland have less concern about security and, consequently, fewer restrictions. Ireland perhaps has stricter controls over freedom of expression than does any other Western country. Some of these controls are based on the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, to which about 95 per cent of the Irish people belong.

The rulers of some countries have simply ignored or have taken away constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. For example, the rulers of China and North Korea severely limit freedom of speech. The governments of these countries believe they alone hold the truth. Therefore, they say, any opposition must be based on falsehood and regarded as dangerous.

History. Throughout history, people have fought for freedom of speech. During the 400's B.C., the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece gave its citizens considerable freedom of expression. Later, freedom of speech became closely linked with many struggles for political and religious freedom. These struggles took place during the Middle Ages, from about the A.D. 500's to the 1500's. They also played an important part in the Reformation, a religious movement of the 1500's that gave rise to Protestantism.

In the 1600's and 1700's, a period called the Age of Reason, many people began to regard freedom of speech as a natural right. Such philosophers as John Locke of England and Voltaire of France based this idea on their belief in the importance of the individual. Every person, they declared, has a right to speak freely and to have a voice in the government. The American Thomas Jefferson also expressed this idea when he wrote the American colonists' Declaration of Independence.

During the 1800's, democratic ideas grew and increasing numbers of people gained freedom of speech. At the same time, however, the growth of cities and industry required more and more people to live and work in large groups. To some people, such as the German philosopher Karl Marx, the interests of society became more important than those of the individual. They thought countries could operate best under an intelligent central authority, rather than with democracy and individual freedom.

In the 1900's, a number of nations came under such totalitarian forms of government as Communism and fascism. These nations abolished or put heavy curbs on freedom of speech. By the late 1980's, however, many of these nations had begun to ease the restrictions.

Technological advances have helped create a centralization of both power and communications in many industrial nations. In such nations, a government can use this power to restrict speech, so that the ordinary person with an idea to express may find it difficult to reach an audience. On the other hand, the same technological advances have produced new methods of communication. These new methods could lead to increased freedom of speech.

Part of a speech by Robert G. Menzies: "The Four Freedoms"
Freedom of Speech and Expression

Thanks to Mark Webster, I lifted this section from vicnet.

Radio Broadcast 19 June 1942. Reprinted in The Forgotten People, Sydney: Angus&Robertson 1943

Robert Menzies was Prime Minister of Australia from 1939-1945 and from 1949-1966.

...the whole essence of freedom is that it is freedom for others as well as for ourselves: freedom for people who disagree with us as well as for our supporters; freedom for minorities as well as for majorities. Here we have a conception which is not born with us but which we must painfully acquire. Most of us have no instinct at all to preserve the right of the other fellow to think what he likes about our beliefs and say what he likes about our opinions. The more primitive the community the less freedom of thought and expression is it likely to concede.

...Now, why is this first freedom of real importance to humanity? The answer is that what appears to be today's truth is frequently tomorrow's error. There is nothing absolute about the truth. It is elusive. In the old phrase, "it lies at the bottom of a deep well". It is hard to come at. So few of us have objective minds - detached minds - and what we conceive to be the truth is very often coloured or distorted by our own passions or interests or prejudices. Hence, if truth is to emerge and in the long run be triumphant, the process of free debate - the untrammeled clash of opinion - must go on.

...Many of you will recall John Stuart Mill's famous essay on Liberty, which was published eighty-three years ago, but is still full of freshness and truth. In the course of that essay Mill stated many principles, four of which I should like to put to you in his own words. First:

There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence. and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.

What is being pointed to in that passage is the easily forgotten truth that the despotism of a majority may be just as bad as the despotism of one man. Public opinion in a reasonably educated community will, I believe, in the long run over a term of years, tend to be sound and just; but public day-to-day opinion, which must frequently be ill-informed, is quite capable of being not only wrong, but so extravagant as to be unjust and oppressive.

My second passage from Mill is this:

The principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others

Here again we have a pregnant truth. It is a good rule, not only of common law but of social morality, that we must so use our own as not to injure others. The man who claims too much aggressive liberty for himself may be getting it at the expense of somebody else. Liberty is for all, not for some.

Mill next says:

As the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable.

I find this passage particularly illuminating Fascism and the Nazi movement are both based upon a social philosophy which elevates the all-powerful State and makes the rights of the individual, not matters of inherent dignity but matters merely of concession by the State. Each says to the ordinary citizen, 'Your rights are not those you were born with, but those which of our kindness we allow you." It is good to be reminded by Mill that this tendency is not confined to any one country. As the organization of society becomes more complex we must be increasingly vigilant for the freedom of our minds and spirits.

My final passage from Mill is this:

Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

In other words, it is a poorly founded and weakly held belief which cannot resist the onset of another man's critical mind.

Contact me

This site directly concerns the South Australian Public Service, but if it has any application to other public services then please use it.

This site was last modified 2004/08/14.

Please email me with any comments. Constructive criticism is very welcome.

David Clarke
Email me at

My experience

Some notes on what motivated me to stand up for the right to freedom of speech...

The start

Twenty five years ago a geologist stationed at Crystal Brook was reprimanded for giving his opinion to, I think it was a radio reporter. I've forgotten the exact subject now. I expressed my disgust with a letter that was published in the Advertiser.

Clare Pipeline

More recently I have been reprimanded for expressing, in another published letter, my concern about the possible environmental impacts of a proposed scheme to provide irrigation water to the Clare Valley from the Murray. (I had earlier been refused permission to express my concern on this scheme to the Clare Valley Water Resources Planning Committee.)

Internet site

I have been ordered to remove an Internet site that provided groundwater data to the public.

I did, for a time, remove this site, but have now reinstated it. I hold that in maintaining this site in my own time I am doing nothing unethical;

  • it is a useful service to the public;
  • the Departmental site provides data from individual observation wells, but not composite data for whole observation networks, as does my site;
  • the data belong to the South Australian people, not to the Department or the bureaucrats;
  • what I do in my own time is my own business.
I was refused permission to maintain this site on behalf of the Department, on the grounds that any interpretation of groundwater data could be litigious.

Last straw

Finally, I was refused permission to take part in a water forum organized by a senator. I hold that all citizens have the right to fully participate in the processes of democracy.