The Department of Justice seems to have a case of nostalgia these days. Bruno Thériault, director general of the department’s workplace branch, recently sent out a memo to all employees, telling them how he thinks they should behave during an election campaign. The two-word summary? “Zip it.”
Won’t happen. Sorry.
M. Thériault made me remember a simpler time from long ago, when public service workers had no political rights. No going door-to-door; no lawn signs; no public declarations of support for a candidate or a party. But Osborne v. Canada (Treasury Board) changed all that in 1991. It was a Supreme Court decision, which declared that public service workers have political rights like every other Canadian citizen. There were some restrictions, which made sense: senior managers in policy-making roles, for example, had to maintain strict neutrality, as before. But rank-and-file federal public employees could engage outside their workplaces in the political life of Canada—and so they did.
Area Councils and Component activists plunged in. Political action committees sprang up. Regional activists organized all-candidates meetings. Later, with regionalization, regional councils took part with enthusiasm. Public service issues were brought to the fore, again and again. Candidates’ feet were held to the fire in campaign after campaign.
The powers that be were not entirely pleased with this turn of events. The Public Service Commission to this day sends out carefully-worded memos during election campaigns, warning public service employees not to cross some ill-defined line or other. Departments have been doing the same thing. The intent has been to discourage the political activity that is ours by right.
Now the Department of Justice has gone a step further. Our members and other government employees were sternly reminded that they owed a duty of loyalty to the government. Stay away from the social media if you want to be political, M. Thériault advised, or there might be consequences.
The Thériault memo was supposedly sent to “complement” other rules and guidelines. But it’s causing confusion and stirring up fear.
For example, the memo states that our members are “public servants 24/7.”
Er…no. While in the workplace, no politicking, and no use of the employer’s facilities for politicking. That’s common sense. But once out of the workplace, you have rights that we won fair and square.
And I urge all PSAC members to exercise them, as we have done in the past. In fact, I hope a lot more than we have done in the past.
We are encouraging our members to get fully engaged in the most important federal election campaign that I can remember. Do not be intimidated: the law is on our side.
Our union rights and our members’ hard-won wages and benefits have been under unprecedented attack by the Conservative government. We need to put a stop to this. Harper has to go.