Public service and political party membership - Speech, House of Representatives



In the 1940s and 1950s, US Senator Joseph McCarthy began a regime of attempting to seek out so-called communist sympathisers. Over that period, some 10,000 to 12,000 people lost their jobs. People's lives were ruined. People were unjustly imprisoned. The claims were exaggerated, and did nothing to improve the national security of the United States.

Whether your political tradition is that of freedom or egalitarianism, you should be horrified by McCarthyism in all its forms. The Australian Public Service Code of Conduct makes clear in paragraph 6.4.1:

APS employees may participate in political activities as part of normal community affairs. They may also join, or hold office in, political parties.


The code also notes:

 Commonwealth anti-discrimination legislation prohibits discrimination against a person on the ground of political opinion.

And yet, as a member of the CPSU and the ACT branch of the Labor Party, I have frequently had drawn to my attention instances in which public servants are pressured to step back from their activity within the ALP, to reduce their involvement, to not seek elected office within the Labor Party, to not become a delegate to branch conference. This is inconsistent with the APS Code of Conduct, but it's also inconsistent with the values we should be striving for as an inclusive society.

Strong democracies require mass parties. Back in the 1950s, more than one in 100 adults were members of one of the major political parties. Now that's fallen to fewer than one in 300. As one commentator has noted, there are more people on the waiting list for the Melbourne Cricket Club than there are members of all the Australian political parties combined.

The General Social Survey found that participation in civil and political groups decreased from 18.6 per cent in 2006 to just 9.4 per cent in 2019. Were I fortunate enough to serve as a minister in some future time, I would have no trouble being reported to by public servants who were members of the Liberal Party. This is not a partisan issue; this is about involvement in political parties.

In a committee of which I'm a member we have had an instance in which a committee member asked a witness, 'Are you a member of any political party?' And, of course, we've had Senator Eric Abetz asking Chinese Australians to make statements of loyalty.

This creeping McCarthyism must end. It is perfectly appropriate for public servants to be members of political parties, and the APS Code of Conduct must be upheld.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.